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Teenage apprenticeships: awareness deficit?

Dr Elnaz T. Kashefpakdel, Head of Research, Education and Employers

Over recent years significant public resource has been devoted to improving young people’s awareness of apprenticeships.

Yet while teenage applications have increased, teenage apprenticeship starts have stagnated. Recent government data has shown that fewer than 26% of apprenticeship starts come straight from school or college.

If apprenticeships are to be the vehicle for driving social mobility, enabling young people to gain the work-related skills for their futures without compromising their financial burden for years to come, this percentage must be improved.

For consecutive UK governments, apprenticeships have been increasingly seen as a vehicle for getting more school and college leavers to ‘earn and learn’; a tool to gradually increase national productivity whilst allowing young people to gain valuable sector specific skills in a real working environment.

And though governments have been trying to encourage young people into apprenticeships for many years – the number of starts in England each year has almost tripled in the decade (BIS 2016) before the recent stagnation – there has been a renewed focus on apprenticeships with the announcement in July 2016 of the Post-16 Skills Plan.

With the recent dilemma in higher education regarding the increased fees and accumulated debts after graduation, as well as the prospects of graduate labour market, surely apprenticeships must have gained some attraction among school leavers with the potential of learning and earning at the same time.

The past research by Sutton Trust showed higher apprenticeships result in greater lifetime earnings than undergraduate degrees from non-Russell Group universities.

So, what’s gone wrong? Despite all the promotion behind apprenticeship programmes we are still struggling to increase the number of teenage apprenticeships compared to over-19 year olds. What needs to be done to tackle this problem?

The new report “Teenage apprenticeships – Converting awareness to recruitment” launched last week by the research team at Education and Employers charity, to coincide with the National Apprenticeship Week, explores this question and there are some crucial findings which can help shape the future of awareness around apprenticeships.

The research team conducted a comprehensive literature review, analysed two datasets of both qualitative and quantitative research, including a longitudinal study of young people in England and a survey commissioned by YouGov of 2,000 19-24-year olds regarding their experiences at school.  

Apprenticeships have long been considered a “second class route”, despite overall change of attitudes and perception, parents still appear to hold stigmatised views.

In talking to employers, the researchers found that one of the main barriers which prevents school and college leavers becoming apprentices are parental views of vocational education.

With parents and guardians being amongst the strongest influencers on young people’s decision making, we shouldn’t be too surprised of the outcomes.

Teachers in particular need to be supported more so they can provide sufficient advice and guidance regarding alternative progression routes, the research finds.

The report then looks at what schools and colleges have been doing to send more teenagers directly to apprenticeships. It found that high quality career provisions have a large impact, especially when engaging people from the world of work.

Young people often have a limited understanding of local job markets, and yet we assume that they will make best choices in their pursuit of the qualifications and training needed to build their careers.

But in reality they can only do this if they have access to the right information. Since the charity’s formation in 2009, it has been putting evidence together to show employers’ that their engagement in career provisions has great benefits for young people.

This is once again confirmed by talking to teachers and young people during this project. Young people found it extremely valuable to speak to young apprentices and hear about their experiences and gaining first-hand information and knowledge from those who had already embarked their career after finishing their apprenticeships.

From teachers’ perspective this has been particularly helpful for challenging gender stereotyping. Young people hold entrenched opinions on the suitability of different apprenticeships for different genders.

It is believed that in the UK, the career provisions in education have done little to help breaking down unspoken assumptions students hold for a specific career or industry.

A 2017 Industry Apprentice Council annual survey by the Industry Apprentice Council similarly found that 30% of female respondents were not encouraged to do an apprenticeship by their school or college, compared to just 17% of males.

New evidence collected in this research has highlighted that schools and colleges must continue to work to challenge views about the suitably of different apprenticeships across genders.

The charity’s own evidence also show that inviting female apprentices to engage with young people could maximise the benefit of career sessions designed to promote apprenticeships. 

A very interesting finding emerged when looking at the past evidence and the new survey results. The career provisions including employer engagement activities appeared to be most effective when they begans at an earlier age. Schools and colleges who successfully sent a great number of their students to apprenticeships started to provide advice and guidance from year 10.

With access to information about a range of progression routes at key decision-making ages, young people can make better informed choices about their futures.

There is also a growing body of literature including the charity’s “Drawing the Future” report, which suggests that, in order to tackle gender stereotyping, we need to start from primary school; that’s when children start shaping ideas about their future and rule out options.

Based on the findings of this research more needs to be done to make changes. The report suggests that schools and colleges engage volunteers from the world of work to help young people build a clear understanding of their choices.

By inviting apprentices to career events, schools can help young people learn more about the realities of apprenticeships and access reliable and relevant knowledge about a range of programmes.

By doing this, schools and colleges can provide the opportunity for their students to talk to a range of volunteers from the world of work from all walks of life and across genders.

These meaningful encounters could compensate for young people’s limited access to social and cultural capital, in particular young people from less privileged backgrounds.

Education and Employers has actively promoted this through the free volunteer / school matchmaking service, Inspiring the Future, developed in partnership with the Education and Skills Funding Agency to raise awareness and promote the status of apprenticeships.

Currently around 7,000 volunteers on the charity’s platform have indicated they are able to speak about apprenticeships. These include current and former apprentices, those who manage apprentices or work with apprentices in their organisation or who work in apprenticeship policy. Schools can invite in these volunteers to help inspire students to consider this route into the world of work.

Many school leavers are probably unaware of a range of possibilities ahead of them, unaware of different pathways to their future. In this complex labour market, young people need more support than ever.

A collective effort is required to make a real difference to their lives. 

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