This week, The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, confirmed the coalition's vision for Apprenticeships, saying that by increasing routes to learning, Apprenticeships would "not only provide individuals with the skills they need for prosperous and rewarding careers, but also boost businesses' profits and drive growth in the wider economy".
We wholeheartedly endorse this ambition. However, to realise the Minister's goal, those involved in trying to halt the rising trend in youth unemployment must collaborate and innovate with greater effectiveness to ensure that the potential of the Apprenticeships Programme - to improve our young people's skills base, reduce youth unemployment, and provide the desired incentives for employers taking on younger, less experienced employees – is fully realised.
The recent National Audit Office report into Apprenticeships found that the over 25s are taking the lion's share of places, and that one in four young apprentices will drop out before gaining a qualification. This is understandably concerning.
To get the most from the Apprenticeships Programme, two things are essential. First, we must ensure that more out-of-work young people can gain access to Apprenticeships; and second, we must provide those young people with the pre-Apprenticeship training and support that will ensure they enter their placements ready for success.
As one of the organisations delivering the Work Programme, it is clear to us at Working Links, that is it organisations like ours that are best placed to help the youngest benefit claimants prepare for and secure Apprenticeships. Our research report into Apprenticeships and Youth Unemployment – Learning a Living –revealed that 68% of young people are worried about their job prospects. This concern is understandable, but even more so when considering the young people we surveyed felt that they are not getting enough advice from schools about vocational qualifications such as Apprenticeships. Only 24% of unemployed young people we spoke to had received careers advice about Apprenticeships, while 70% of this same group received information about college courses.
Apprenticeship information not being provided consistently in schools is worrying, when 80% of the employers we surveyed believe Apprenticeships would help reduce youth unemployment. Further, almost 100% of employers felt that an Apprenticeship gave young people the skills they need to find lasting work.
Along with endorsing Apprenticeships, the employers we spoke to challenged some of the traditional views about which skills businesses look for when hiring young people. Some 86% of employers said they look for potential rather than experience when hiring young people and cited soft skills such as 'a good attitude' and 'enthusiasm and motivation' as key qualities in potential work ready candidates.
It's clear that both employers and the government are looking to Apprenticeships as a crucial tool to reduce youth unemployment. There is also widespread recognition of the positive impact these schemes have on the quality of the overall labour force. Working Links shares this view, and is working with the government and employers to realise this vision and help young people into a future of sustainable employment.
A closer alignment of Apprenticeships and the Work Programme will not only help ensure better life chances for the young unemployed, but will further improve the service offered by the Work Programme to young people. Working Links is currently piloting a programme in the South West of England to do just that – helping young people who are unemployed to gain the valuable pre-employment skills they need to successfully enter into an Apprenticeship.
The trial is up and running, and initial results from Plymouth are already revealing the scheme's potential. Once the pilot is completed, Working Links will share its findings with government and business to help develop a workable, nationwide programme that successfully integrates Apprenticeships, the Work Programme and the needs of employers, large and small.
As we reflect, during National Apprenticeship Week, on the very welcome new investments announced by government, let us not forget that collaboration remains the key to delivering that dual vision of a well-skilled workforce and a brighter future for our next generation.
Mike Lee is director of skills and young people at Working Links, which provides advice, guidance, access to training and supports people seeking work