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'Apprentices shouldn't be abandoned and invisible'

Young people who embark on apprenticeships get little support. They deserve stability and security, says Yvonne Williams

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Young people who embark on apprenticeships get little support. They deserve stability and security, says Yvonne Williams

Much of the public discourse around apprenticeships is dominated by those who would gain most from making the scheme work: providers, politicians and employers. Last week, Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), presented a clear analysis of why the 3 million new starts are such an unrealistic target if we look at the supply of places.

It is disappointingly understandable that small businesses in the main would prefer to recruit from an already skilled labour market. This would absolve them of the cost, the responsibility and the ongoing hard work of developing young people’s talents. It is equally logical that they would prefer not to pay into a scheme that provides support for skills training elsewhere.

However, will they be prepared to either fill gaps in their labour force – or pay a higher premium for labour that could well be in short supply, whatever Brexit deal (or no deal) we end up with?

What is in it for them?

What we are constantly failing to do is to ask what is in it for apprentices and why the potential recruits are not rushing to sign up and thus realise the ambitious 3 million target? Questions we fail to ask include:

  • Can the businesses of all types and sizes and the CBI, guarantee that the training will be sufficiently engaging to sustain the apprentices to the end? 

  • Will it be appropriately pitched? 

  • Will the skill-set be ambitious enough to take the learner on to greater things? 

In other words, will the political rhetoric – not just of “new apprenticeships” but “high-quality apprenticeships” – be borne out in practice?  Those at the top of the tree, skills minister Anne Milton and Mark Dawe of the AELP, have a lot to do to justify the public faith and public money placed in them.

Damian Hinds’ ambition for vocational routes – “that everyone has a clear route to the career they want, whether that’s as an engineer or a software developer” – shows his eyes are still firmly on the graduate market as if any worthwhile careers below that qualification level and outside the STEM sector don’t exist.

Economic gaps 

The real gap in reporting is from the perspective of the potential skilled workers of tomorrow and their parents, and those currently in vocational and technical training. To all intents and purposes these people are invisible, perhaps because they are not earning enough to be considered worthy of politicians’ notice.

Bring in any change to degree funding and politicians respond to the immediate reaction from students and their parents – in spite of the fact that this group will be debtors rather than contributors to the economy for some years and many will never pay their debt back. To date, the cost of student debt has risen to over £100 billion.

Apprentices, on the other hand, will be making a positive contribution to the company and nation’s balance sheet from day one. In the worst cases they are a source of cheap labour at £3.70 an hour. Working a 35-hour week would give them just under £130 a week from which they then have to cover their expenses. They will also be doing study relevant to their course. The working conditions of some of the poorest young people serving some of the poorest industries can be gruelling. For most apprentices the cost of their food and transport will take a disenchantingly large proportion out of their weekly wages.

Unbalanced attitude

Yet the employer receives up to 90 per cent of the cost of employing an apprentice! This shows a seriously unbalanced attitude on the part of the government to the employer and employee in the apprenticeship framework.

It is scandalous that the government which can pay up to 90 per cent costs for apprenticeships and which is reducing financial impositions on small firms is still dragging its heels over subsidising apprentices’ travel to and from the place of work. These young people cannot raise loans to support themselves and they will not be eligible for benefits either. In order to survive, many will have to have some support from their families.

Nor has enough been done to ensure investment in personnel who will monitor and support apprenticeships over a year. Young people are not guaranteed stability and security. If the businesses to which they are attached go under, so do the apprenticeships. If providers struggle to recruit supervisors to oversee and visit apprentices, then vital support is withheld.

What improvements are needed?

  1. Widespread research is needed that actively seeks out the views of the young people who have completed training, not forgetting those who have had to give up for a variety of reasons. In that way, improvements based on best practice can be made and poor provision weeded out.

  2. Better monitoring. Nor has enough been said about the investment in personnel to monitor and support apprenticeships over a year. Young people are not guaranteed stability and security. If the businesses to which they are attached go under, so do the apprenticeships. If providers struggle to recruit supervisors to oversee and visit apprentices, then vital support is withheld.

  3. Contingencies. If we are to have a fair and equal society, then providers and relevant ministers need to take specific, practical steps to ensure that apprenticeships at all levels have contingencies built in to prevent the collapse of an apprenticeship part way through. They must ensure that young people are properly supervised and that consistent high-quality training is genuinely available.

  4. Hardship funds. Undergraduates have access to hardship funds supplied by universities out of donations from grateful post-graduates. Isn’t it time for the businesses, which will benefit in the short, medium and long-term, to provide a similar range to support the poorest of young people to achieve their ambitions?

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a school in the South of England

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