Throughout history, settlement has been a key feature of apprenticeships, involving a range of social, legal, welfare and administrative considerations (Snell, 1996). Settlement was first established as an apprentice's 'right to receive welfare at the hands of the parish' in which the apprenticeship was being served (Aldrich, 1999), but it was also a complex and important concept in relation to the apprenticeship deal, which was that if young apprentices were to be expected to work hard for many years on low wages, then they had to be rewarded with something better at the end. This article discusses some issues concerning settlement in relation to contemporary plumbing apprenticeships.
Few would disagree that apprenticeships bring social and economic benefits. They address youth unemployment and contribute to the nation's stock of intermediate skills and qualifications, thus increasing productivity. Apprenticeships exemplify succession planning by training each generation of skilled workers while helping to prevent craft wage inflation, which reduces the risk of macro inflation in the wider economy (Steedman, Gospel & Ryan, 1998). In other words, increasing the number of apprenticeships means more people are working for less money, and this helps to keep the price of goods down in the shops. In order to achieve more apprenticeship places, consecutive governments have provided financial incentives to employers. However, with regard to the plumbing occupation, there are possible problems afoot.
In contrast to many of our European neighbours, English plumbers do not have to serve an apprenticeship to qualify. This is owing to both a lack of workforce regulation and protectionism. In Germany, plumbers have to achieve Meister status in order to set up an enterprise. However, the lack of such regulation in England has created competition for apprentices in the workforce from adult students and career switchers (who can attend full-time college courses to train to become self-employed plumbers) as well as from migrant labour within the single European labour market.
The consequences of such supply-side growth in the plumbing sector impacts on the opportunities for apprentices to progress into employment with better pay once qualified. In my empirical study of plumbing apprentices, some were even found to be working unpaid. Such a process stands to breach the implicit 'contract' in the traditional apprenticeship settlement:
Paying a lower wage than for a fully qualified worker while a person receives training is a long-standing principle of traditional Apprenticeships. In the UK there is an implicit contract that the individual learner is making a contribution to their human capital that will pay future dividends in terms of better pay and employment prospects on completion of their training (BIS, 2011: 9).
The prospects of steady employment and better pay have been key selling points for apprenticeships, with City & Guilds (2011) touting the 'Rich List' to young people as 'the principle that vocational learning is a gateway to wealth regardless of a learner's background'. However, the findings in my study highlighted the diminishing potential for apprentices to access the settlement they were implicitly and explicitly promised through the way in which apprenticeships were marketed.
The inherent flexibilities and inclusion policies in the education and training market, unregulated self-employment, migrant labour and the unbridled growth in apprenticeships may bring social and economic benefits, but they may also present longer-term problems for the sustainability of plumbing apprenticeships for young people in England. Moreover, the issues highlighted in my study relating to the limitations of training 'unapprenticed' candidates in simulated college environments as well as the lack of authenticity in assessments serve to undermine the quality and status of apprenticeship training. My findings also exposed the health and safety risks associated with under-qualified unapprenticed individuals who mistakenly believe they are able to work with plumbing, heating, gas and electrics, leading in turn to a potential reduction in the professional standing of the plumbing occupation in the eyes of the general public.
Long term growth in apprenticeships will be dependent upon the outcomes for young people in terms of realising their settlement of employment progression, professional status and better pay. If this fails to materialise, then apprenticeships will be eschewed because they have nothing to offer young people other than skills for low-paid, low-status jobs that can be continually destabilised and undermined by partly-qualified operatives entering occupations through low-quality unapprenticed routes.
Dr Simon Reddy is a master plumber and teacher in FE, and is a founding member of Tutor Voices
Aldrich, R. (1999) 'The apprentice in history', in Ainley, P. and Rainbird, H. (ed.) Apprenticeship: Towards a new paradigm of learning, London: Kogan Page.
Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) (2011) Apprenticeship pay survey 2011, research paper 64 [Online], Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/32286/12-p137-apprenticeship-pay-survey-2011.pdf [22 Jul 2014].
Snell, K.D.M. (1996) 'The apprenticeship system in British history: The fragmentation of a cultural institution', History of Education, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 303-321.
Steedman, H., Gospel, H. and Ryan, P. (1998) Apprenticeship: A strategy for growth, London: Centre for Economic Performance, [Online], Available: http://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/94631.pdf [13 June, 2015].