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'Drastic change is needed if the next government is to deliver apprenticeship promises'

David Grailey, chief executive of awarding body NCFE, writes:

Among last week’s budget announcements, the 20 per cent salary rise for apprentices between 16 and 19 was a welcome one. The increase, above that recommended by the Low Pay Commission, will work to help those young employees, and in turn continue to deliver eager and motivated young staff, committed to on the job development.

But the salary rise for apprentices is likely to also be a tactical one, a punchy move designed to appeal to the younger voter.

Apprenticeship targets are an important part of the main parties’ policies; the primary solution to tackling youth unemployment. With the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds not in full time education currently over 14 per cent (compared with an overall unemployment rate across the UK labour force of just 5.7 per cent), it’s of little surprise that tackling this gap is the leading concern young people want the next government to address. In fact, our own research showed this featured above education policy concerns or even tuition fees with the younger electorate, which may explain the big promises.

However, there’s still work to be done in realigning attitudes towards apprenticeships in order to ensure that young people are being given the right advice about the range of options that are available to them. If either of the main political parties’ ambitious apprenticeship targets are to be met, whoever ends up fulfilling the role of government next, they must address a serious need for improved advice on the value of such post-school education and work options.

A recent study conducted by NCFE has shown that a large portion of school leavers are not being made fully aware of the options available to them after secondary school. Nearly a quarter of 16-24 year olds surveyed said they were not fully informed of their career and learning options following school, and more than a third believing teachers were too focused on final grades rather than what they did when they left.

With such a significant knowledge gap around post-school education and work options, it stands to reason that the main political parties approaches to tackling the problem of youth unemployment through apprenticeships is in serious danger of floundering.

The success of National Apprenticeship Week this year was encouraging, with the latest figures showing some 20-30,000 new apprenticeships pledged by employers - roles that will offer young people fantastic opportunities to learn new skills, gain real work experience, and hopefully lead to long-term employment. This government has invested significantly into making apprenticeships a success, and by helping to provide businesses with a greater understanding of the value that such individuals can bring to their organisation they are setting the foundations to encourage more to take on apprentices in the future.

It is beyond doubt that apprenticeships offer up a real future for employees. The majority of apprentices (85 per cent) will stay in employment after they complete their programme, which is in stark contrast to the growing number of graduates who find themselves unemployed after completing their university course. I myself started my career as an apprentice, in a butchers nonetheless, but it gave me a valuable introduction to hard work that set me up for a career that has ultimately brought me to where I am now.

Better salaries are an important step to driving more young people into valuable and rewarding apprenticeship schemes around the country, and will help to deliver part of the next government’s promises. However, the next government must do more to support schools in doing all they can to properly inform students of the benefits of all forms of further education and vocational training, and the career paths that can follow. Otherwise these fantastic aspirations and pledges will remain unfulfilled.

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