Last week, Boris Johnson told the nation that young people “should be guaranteed an apprenticeship” as part of the country’s recovery from Covid-19. The idea of an “apprenticeship guarantee” is incredible, if not magical, but like most magic, it is probably just smoke and mirrors (or fumus et specula, for those who read Classics at university like Mr Johnson).
As a small group of apprentices who are passionate advocates for apprenticeships, we very much welcome the proposition of a guaranteed apprenticeship. However, we also know very well that balancing work and study can be a huge challenge and recognise that it might not be the right option for all young people.
Like many of our Prime Minister’s bold statements, there seems to be little substance behind this commitment, but then when it comes to setting arbitrary targets without any clear strategy about how to meet them, the Government has form. Not only does the three million apprenticeship target remain woefully beyond reach, but the number of apprenticeship starts have actually decreased.
For young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, apprenticeships are not necessarily the solution they might be perceived to be. In our report, ‘Undervalued Apprentices’, we highlighted how travel costs were punitive for apprentices many of whom earn significantly less than the minimum wage. For families under the greatest financial pressures, this is clearly a disincentive.
The failure of the Tories to deliver on their manifesto commitment to give apprentices discounted rail travel, inevitably calls into question the integrity of this latest ambition. Over 600,000 young people could find themselves unemployed this year, in addition to the 750,000 young people who were NEET before lockdown. It begs the question where Mr Johnson is planning to put these extra 1.35 million apprentices.
It looks likely that the economic aftermath of Covid 19 will be as bad, if not worse, than the financial crash in 2008, and young people will be disproportionately affected. From that we know that graduates will move into lower level jobs, leaving non-graduates with nowhere to go, especially as sectors such as retail and hospitality, will be particularly impacted by social-distancing measures.
This brings us to employers. As the Prime Minister magically pulls this limitless number of apprenticeships out of his top hat, it leaves Business Secretary Alok Sharma looking rather like his Debbie McGee, looking appreciative on the sidelines, but not having any significant role. If ever this was a time for cross-departmental government, then surely this is it. Many employers have already frozen recruitment programmes or estimate they will be recruiting fewer employees post Covid.
We know that employer-led standards can drive the quality of apprenticeships and help to meet skills gaps. While the details aren’t clear, it’s suggested that the training costs of these magically guaranteed apprenticeships will be met by the Government; this still leaves employers to foot the wage bill. We fear that the consequences of this good-news on the hoof policy will be low pay, poor practice and poor quality apprenticeships that will fail to equip young people with the training and skills both they and the economy needs.
We would like to see a wider ‘youth pledge’ which would support all people through a clear pathway of progression whether that’s via an apprenticeship, FE or HE, into meaningful work and long term careers. These are challenging times, but there is also the opportunity to rethink, to be creative and to be brave. Last week the Shadow Business Secretary, Ed Miliband, announced proposals to create a ‘zero-carbon army’ of young people to tackle the climate crisis and guarantee every young person a job, subsidised for a period if necessary.
Such a scheme could include apprenticeships at all levels with a focus on ‘green’ jobs and new sustainable technologies, offering real learning and career opportunities for young people. We need investment and a substantive offer if we are not to lose a generation of talent, not a crowd-pleasing illusion which inevitably ends with a puff of smoke.
Dexter Hutchings, The Apprentice Voice