Shaping apprenticeships to employer, economic and individual young people’s needs – does too much reform bring risks?

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Joshua Hunter – Bricklaying, Team UK, WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017 (flikr CC BY 2.0)

Apprenticeships have a long history in England. They have their roots in medieval craft guilds. Children went away to live with host families for the purpose of being taught the skills associated with a craft.

The 1563 Statute of Artificers marked the first national system of apprenticeship training in England. The Statute required seven years of training for apprentices before they could exercise their trade independently. Importantly masters (i.e. employers) were at the heart of the apprenticeship system, shaping training requirements. The apprenticeship system continued in this form for around 350 years.

Even though the profile of the economy was changing – just as it is today – apprenticeships remained an important route to employment throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially in occupations requiring practical skills and in new engineering and allied trades. Indeed the mid-1960s have been described as the ‘high water mark’ for apprenticeships in the UK, with over a third of male 15-17 year old school leavers going into apprenticeships. A big reduction followed from the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, when the number of young people in apprenticeships halved.

More recently apprenticeship has become an increasingly common theme in public policy debate. Apprenticeships have been seen as a means to:

  • Tackle the productivity gap between the UK and its competitors by developing more and better vocational skills – so meeting employer and national economic needs
  • Address the transition to work for young people not taking the academic higher education route on leaving school – so addressing individual needs in the context of the demise of the youth labour market and helping foster social mobility

Arguably these good intentions have been compromised over the last twenty years or so by ongoing changes to, and rebranding of, the apprenticeship and vocational education system contributing to a lack of clarity amongst many individuals and employers that the Government would like to engage. There have been Modern Apprenticeships, National Traineeships, Advanced Modern Apprenticeships, Advanced Apprenticeships and Foundation Modern Apprenticeships. There have been concerns from young people and policy analysts about the quality of some apprenticeships. Recommendations in the Wolf Report and the Richard Review of apprenticeships set out ways of addressing this issue. Looking ahead, the 2016 Post-16 Skills Plan has set out new T Levels, alongside A Levels and Apprenticeships.

This is all laudable, but also confusing for non-specialists. For those individuals with other more tried and tested options available the apprenticeship route can be perceived as a risky one.

The last year has seen the introduction of an Apprenticeship Levy on large employers to help fund apprenticeship training and further associated apprenticeship reforms. While some employers have continued in a ‘business as usual’ mode, for others the apprenticeship levy is seen as a tax. Substantial numbers of employers have failed to sign up for the online service which enables them to spend their levy funds. Apprenticeship starts have fallen markedly since the introduction of the levy.

In the context of ongoing changes in the vocational education and training system and in higher education, National Apprenticeship Week provides an opportunity to show how apprenticeships can provide important talent pipelines for employers, addresses the needs of the economy and help individuals develop their skills and careers. It is a chance to ‘de-risk’ apprenticeships in the eyes of potential beneficiaries.

There has been medium-term success in encouraging apprenticeships, but in the context of employers questioning the cost of the apprenticeship levy (at the same time as other increases in employment costs), the future viability of the apprenticeship system depends upon potential young apprentices and their parents having clarity about the system and the potential benefits of choosing an apprenticeship rather than other options. Constant changes of policy and introductions of new initiatives potentially make it harder to choose the right path for post-16.

By Anne Green, Professor of Regional Economic Development, City-REDI, University of Birmingham. 

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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