High unemployment is the tragic human face of the economic crisis we continue to endure in the UK.
Nearly a million adults under 25 were out of work in the three months to November, which pushed the youth unemployment rate up to 20.3%. That is the highest level since records began in 1992. Equally worrying was a particularly sharp rise in the number of 16 and 17-year-olds classed as Not in Education, Employment or Training, which jumped to 204,000 from 177,000 in the previous quarter.
Young people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than the average worker and this is a waste of resources that no country can afford. We must do more to avoid a lost generation and to tap into the potential and creativity that this young generation has to offer.
As Professor Alison Wolf's review of vocational education for 14-19 year olds recommended earlier this month, high-quality vocational qualifications should be regarded as a fundamental and legitimate path for young people to take into higher education or skilled employment.
Professor Wolf wrote that Apprenticeships should be seen as a key route to national prosperity, called for more high-quality Apprenticeships for young people and concluded that Apprenticeships are valuable as much for the general skills they teach as for the specific ones.
The report made for interesting reading for all of us in the Work Based Learning sector. We know that almost a million unemployed young people in the UK are in a position to embark on an Apprenticeship. But there is a lot of work to do before we can claim that all of them have the option of taking up an Apprenticeship with a British employer.
Michael Gove has called it "a brilliant and ground-breaking report", so we can assume that the Government plans to implement much of the work it commissioned. However, if Apprenticeships are to meet the aspirations of both Professor Wolf and the Government, then their value needs to be better understood by employers and demonstrated through effective quantitative and qualitative measures.
It would be quite demotivating for a young person to decide to become an Apprentice, commit themselves to that career route and then find out that because there are not enough employers taking on Apprentices in the UK, there are no vacancies for them.
We have a powerful message.
Employers should be aware, for instance, that a bigger commitment to Apprenticeships would reflect what I believe is a sea change in public opinion about the value of vocational learning. Two thirds (66%) of people surveyed in a national ICM Omnibus poll for Apprenticeship Week last month said rising tuition fees had made them think more positively about the value of vocational learning through Apprenticeships. And a staggering 95% of people – and 99% of 16-18-year-olds – thought every young person should have the opportunity to pursue an Apprenticeship if they wanted to.
This research dispels the myth that Apprenticeships are in some way a second-class option for young people.
Train to Gain created the notion that up-skilling the work force was the responsibility of central Government. However, Government efforts to engage UK employers more fully in developing the skills of their employees have not produced significant increases in the numbers of firms offering Apprenticeships. In my view, we need to move towards an employer demand-led environment and away from one defined by Government.
The OECD has identified employer engagement with skills as a particular challenge for the UK. It's clear then that we need to make it easier for both large employers and SMEs to take on apprentices through expansion of Group Training Associations and Apprenticeship Training Agencies.
Investment in skills has to be a strategic priority for British firms looking to improve productivity and performance as the country moves out of recession. Employers already invest more than £39 billion a year in training their staff and the skills delivery system must work in partnership with employers to increase economically valuable skills.
The focus is shifting rapidly to helping employers to help themselves [individually and collectively]. If we are to encourage more employers to take on apprentices, then we need to address some of the barriers that employers face when trying to engage with apprenticeship delivery.
Small and medium sized employers remain the largest untapped market for Apprenticeship recruitment. However, SMEs are less likely to be involved in Apprenticeship recruitment and many firms with under 50 employees struggle to balance this against day to day business survival.
If responsibility for skills within industries is truly to shift to employers we will need to develop a comprehensive strategy to make it happen.
We need to move collectively to help employers recognise that the value of investing in workforce development is as important, if not more so, than investing in plant and machinery, irrespective of Government funding.
We at Pearson believe passionately in helping people make progress in their lives through education. We invest a lot of time and money in initiatives aimed at raising employer awareness of what Apprenticeships can do for them. We organise events, participate in or sponsor events run by our partners and frequently speak at seminars and conferences around the country. By working alongside learning providers and involving employers from the earliest stage of the Apprenticeship, we not only enhance the experience for the employer, but also make Apprenticeships more relevant and valuable to the learner.
I spoke at a seminar in West Suffolk last month. There were 80 employers in the room and only a third had employees on an Apprenticeship programme. Of the remainder, the majority came forward at the end to say they would be actively recruiting apprentices from now on. In my experience, that is typical – when the facts about Apprenticeships are laid out for employers, they tend to respond very positively.
We need them to. Between us, we must help businesses and learners reach their full potential. Only then will we begin to make a real dent in unemployment levels, particularly for young people, and only then, will over the UK's economy be able to grow and recover fully from this crisis.
Trevor Luker is managing director of Pearson Work Based Learning