The House of Lords Youth Unemployment Committee recently published its 2021-2022 report. To those of us in the sector, its findings sadly came as no surprise. There is a skills gap, which is a major driver of youth unemployment. Despite government initiatives for addressing skills mismatches, many are intentionally short-term and do not address the structural nature of youth unemployment. As a result, we need a long-term, inclusive strategy to ensure that young people don’t miss out when we consider best approaches to tackling the needs of emerging and growth sectors such as those of the digital and green economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit younger people’s employment and learning opportunities. Although catch-up funding has been made available to 16–19-year-olds who need it in classroom-based settings, this support is not available in work-based settings. Boosting participation in apprenticeships and traineeships in order to bridge the skills gap between young people and the needs of local employers has to be a priority.
Putting apprenticeships on a sustainable footing – and increasing participation
Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen apprenticeship starts drop significantly. Level 2 starts have fallen by 45% and level 3 by a third. Yet we know that starting an apprenticeship is a great way to launch or even re-launch your career. Employers clearly value apprentices too – over 90% of apprentices are retained as staff in the longer-term. We need a plan to put apprenticeships on a sustainable footing, and that means increasing the number of apprenticeships and the demand from young people to start them.
Apprenticeships remain the only part of the education system where 16-18 provision is not fully funded by the state. To ensure long term financial sustainability of the apprenticeship system, overall funding for apprenticeships should match employer demand. This should include a standalone annual budget for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – allowing more apprentices to be taken on.
The incentives made available through the ‘Plan for Jobs’ have also been a fantastic success. We’ve seen 101,000 new jobs have been created so far, of which 76% have been for 16-24-year-olds – significantly more than the starts on the much pricier Kickstart scheme. We agree with the House of Lords Youth Unemployment report finding that these incentives should be extended beyond January 2022 – and that they should be weighted towards younger people.
Bridging the skills gap
To tackle skills gaps among young people, we need more investment in programmes for young people who may not be ready for either full employment or an apprenticeship. We already have Skills Bootcamps which provide valuable medium-higher level skills training and are based on local employer demand – with the offer of a guaranteed job interview on completion.
However, Government needs to look again at the successful outcomes achieved by those on traineeships. Traineeships provide people aged 16-24 with an intensive period of skills development alongside a work placement. They’re designed to last between six weeks and twelve months, and are intended for young people who aren’t in employment and have had little work experience.
Traineeships produce success outcomes too – around 3 in 4 of all trainees take on work, start an apprenticeship or take on further study within 12 months of starting a traineeship. Trainees are also six times more likely to subsequently take on an apprenticeship than non-trainees. They also have a good track record of attracting groups who are usually under-represented in the workplace – 32% of all trainees were from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background and 23% of trainees identified themselves as having a learning difficulty or disability.
Traineeships aren’t a job though – and employers aren’t required to pay trainees throughout the placement. Understandably potential participants often opt for programmes which offer renumeration instead. As a result, traineeships can often be seen as the last option for young people – this needs to change.
Given their great value for money, ensuring employers continue to be incentivised to take on traineeships is vital too. Last year a new employer work placement incentive payment was introduced but is only in place until July 2022. Clearly this must be extended if we are to create more traineeships.
Let’s give the employers the skills they need, young people the opportunities they deserve
The House of Lords Youth Unemployment Committee have shone a light on the urgent need for a long-term strategy for solving skills gaps and shortages – a key driver of youth unemployment – but now is the time for action. Boosting the number of people taking on either a traineeship or apprenticeship should now be an urgent priority if we’re to give employers the skills they need and young people the opportunities they deserve.
Jane Hickie is Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP). AELP is a national membership body, representing around 800 organisations involved in the delivery of vocational learning and employability. Their members support thousands of businesses and millions of people across England by delivering apprenticeships, traineeships, and programmes for the unemployed.