From education to employment

Apprenticeships are more celebrated than ever, so why are fewer people taking them?

A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated National Apprenticeship Week and the FE sector united in showcasing the benefits of apprenticeships. Apprenticeships benefited from strong cross-party support, an impressive profile in national media and companies across the UK pledging apprenticeship places. It was great to see apprenticeships being recognised and celebrated as a viable option alongside university, and a key enabler to getting our economy back on track.

However on 27 March, the Statistical First Release from the Department for Business and Skills (BIS) documented a worrying trend in the uptake of apprenticeships. From August 2012 – January 2013, nearly 11,500 fewer people have started an apprenticeship compared to the same period last year. This represents a decrease of 4.5%.  Amongst the 16-18 age group, the decline is 12%.

As we gear up for economic growth and focus on filling ‘skills gaps’ in our workforce, clearly this is cause for concern –especially with youth unemployment on the rise again, with nearly 1 million 18-24 year olds out of work. Apprenticeships have a higher profile than ever, so why are they declining? The answer I’m afraid is a complex picture.

We certainly should not be focusing on quantity of apprenticeships over quality, and we need to remember that there are simply less 16-18 year olds due to demographic trends. And obviously, the economy has been challenging for businesses of all sizes across the UK, making them less likely to invest in apprenticeships.

But, we all know high-quality apprenticeships equip people with the skills that employers are crying out for. The Government’s response to the Richard Review calls for employers to put recognised and meaningful industry standards at the heart of every apprenticeship. This is encouraging, but only goes some way towards addressing the broader problem of the drop in apprenticeship starts.

So what else is causing this decline? First, we need to sort out careers advice and guidance. Employers need to go into schools and talk to young people about career options. Our report, ‘Ways into Work: views of children and young people on education and employment’ revealed that one third of the 17-18 year olds surveyed had not received any careers guidance. Meanwhile, although 64% of 14-18 year olds had received careers advice from their teachers, just 14% rated this as ‘very useful’.

This is arguably because not enough teachers know the full spectrum of vocational education options that are available. Most of them have been through the university route themselves, and therefore are less likely to appreciate the opportunities vocational qualifications can offer.  That’s why our own apprentices at City & Guilds have taken careers advice into their own hands, contacting their former schools and holding workshops for young people about the different options available.

Schools themselves are also exacerbating the issue. It’s not uncommon to hear about sixth forms and academies ‘holding on’ to their students to maximise their funding. To achieve this, there have been reports of schools intentionally not advising their pupils about alternative options to A-levels.

Meanwhile, those young people who do want to undertake an apprenticeship are facing competition from not just their fellow school leavers, but also unemployed graduates that are flooding the job market. Some of the employers we work with have even told us about graduates who omit their  degrees from their job applications in order to be considered for apprenticeships.

We also need to look at things from employers’ perspectives. Especially for SMEs, bringing on apprenticeships can be daunting. But, for any size of business, taking on young apprentices at all can be a big risk; many 16-18 year olds haven’t worked before and they may not have developed the all-important softer skills, like time management and communication. To top it all off, the media is hardly friendly towards our ‘lost generation’.

If an employer had a choice between a 16-year-old apprentice and a 20-year-old apprentice, who do you think they’d rather hire? Apprenticeships are an investment and young people are deemed to be a bigger risk, even though they can bring fantastic benefits. They have immense enthusiasm, can be easier to mould, and are often keener to learn and grow within an organisation.

That’s why it’s so important that we help young people make that transition into the workplace, and give them the initial experience to get onto the first rung of the career ladder. It’s encouraging that the Government has committed to its traineeship programme. City & Guilds is also proud to be re-developing its TechBac. To do so, we are consulting with a broad range of employers, educational institutions, and young people themselves. The TechBac could be the solution to enable young people to keep their options open while still developing the employability and technical skills that employers need. We hope this will offer young people a clear route into an apprenticeship, university, further education, or indeed directly into employment. The goal of the TechBac is to produce young people that have the all-round knowledge and skills that employers are looking for, thereby improving their prospects for getting a job.

Undoubtedly this is a complex picture – and some things are in our control and others are a symptom of our broader economic environment. However,  unless we address the reasons behind the decline in apprenticeships, the UK risks future skills gaps in the core industries that will help pull us out of recession. We also risk deepening the pool of disillusioned, unemployed young people.

There’s no single answer as to how we can solve this problem. Employers, the FE sector, schools, Government and young people themselves need to work together. Only through collaboration can we find solutions and turn this trend around.

Chris Jones is chief executive and director general of City & Guilds, the awarding body

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