Could Modern Apprenticeships (MAs) be the solution to the youth unemployment crisis? They have been a Scottish government priority for a number of years and a target of significant public funding. But increasingly they are being hailed as one of the most promising ways to tackle a youth unemployment rate of 17 per cent, while improving the skills level of the Scottish workforce and involving employers in vocational training.
Following up on its election promise, the government supports 25,000 new apprenticeship starts every year - and figures released by Skills Development Scotland last month appear to confirm the success of the policy.
According to SDS's survey, Scottish employers' views of Modern Apprenticeships 2013, almost all employers offering the apprenticeships felt those who completed were better able to do their job as a result of the MA, and 92 per cent reported their apprentices were better able to work with others.
Two-thirds of employers said productivity had improved, and almost the same number said service or product quality and staff morale had improved as a result of offering apprenticeships.
In fact, employers rated the programme so highly that only half of them would stop offering MAs if public-sector contributions, one of the main incentives to get them involved, were to be cut.
Employing young apprentices is "not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do", youth employment minister Angela Constance told a conference on apprenticeships and training in Edinburgh last month.
"They have skills, they are not set in their ways, they are willing to learn and, of course, they are very loyal," she said.
But employers are not alone in seeing the benefit in Modern Apprenticeships; students also rated the scheme highly, with most saying it had helped their personal development and job prospects.
Of those who completed their MA, 77 per cent were "very satisfied" with their apprenticeship and a further 15 per cent were "satisfied", according to another SDS survey, published earlier this year. They were also more confident in their own abilities, more enthusiastic about learning and felt that they had better long-term career prospects.
The apprenticeships also seem to have an impact on job creation for the young unemployed: more than half of employers recruited apprentices specifically for a training position, rather than training one of their existing staff.
And crucially, 92 per cent of participants who completed their apprenticeship were still in work six months later, with 70 per cent still working with the same company and 20 per cent having moved on to a new employer.
Those working for a different employer said they were more likely to have had some form of career progression, such as a promotion or a pay rise.
Two per cent of those who completed were self-employed six months after finishing their training.
These figures include apprentices who were originally recruited into general employment by their company and subsequently moved on to MAs.
"Almost all of those who completed their MA were in work six months after they completed," Ms Constance stressed.
At the heart of the Modern Apprenticeship programme is the close involvement of employers, as well as the combination of gaining a qualifi- cation alongside paid employment, which means that they appeal to employers and potential apprentices alike.
Each apprentice's training follows one of 86 frameworks, which were developed by the relevant sector skills council and industry. Training providers, colleges and employers train and assess the competence of the apprentices.
The scheme is funded jointly by the government and individual employers, and the government contribution is outcome-based and dependent on the age of the apprentice and the type of industry.
But despite all the good news about the scheme in recent months, there are still some concerns about MAs and the system is acknowledged to be far from perfect.
While MAs are intended to be a viable and reputable alternative to university education for talented young people, there remains a bias among many in the education system towards a university qualification.
"There is a belief that HE is very important and around that you let a thousand flowers bloom," said Professor Ewart Keep, chair in education, training and skills at the University of Oxford's department of education.
Perhaps the most significant issue facing the Modern Apprenticeship programme, particularly as the economy continues to be challenging for many employers, is how to get businesses involved.
SDS already works hard to engage employers, but getting new employers on board remains a challenge. Indeed, in the most recent SDS report, fewer than one in five of those employers not currently offering apprenticeships said they were planning to do so in future.
This could in part be attributable to a lack of information, as only 30 per cent of non-participating employers claimed a good or very good knowledge of MAs and a further 45 per cent claimed only some knowledge of them.
Employers' knowledge of the public-sector contribution available for training a Modern Apprentice was just as low, with only a third of non- participating employers aware of it. Cost generally was another concern for employers, as substantial costs are still incurred when taking on an apprentice.
More than half of those not currently offering places said the main deterrents were structural barriers, ranging from a lack of availability of appropriate apprenticeships in their industry to a feeling that there was too much red tape and bureaucracy involved.
Others said they were actively choosing not to take on Modern Apprentices because they felt their staff were fully skilled or they preferred to take on experienced staff, the survey revealed.
Some experts believe that there is an issue with the attitude of businesses more generally. "Employers seem to have forgotten how to employ young people," said Damien Yeates, SDS chief executive.
In some sectors, there has been a shift away from a long-term employment strategy towards short-term contracting - a pattern that worked against young people and apprenticeships, Mr Yeates said.
Grahame Smith, the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, said there was a deficit in Scotland's "productive business culture"; as a result, "apprenticeships and vocational education and training more generally have been devalued and degraded".
The decision to introduce entry-level Modern Apprenticeships at level 2 in 2008-09 had been a mistake, said Mr Smith. Level 2 MAs are equivalent to level 5 in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework - or Intermediate 2 qualifications at school level - and while they might suit some employers, they did not necessarily benefit the economy or individual learners.
While he understood that the aim was to provide an entry-level qualification, it was increasingly the case that a minimum of a level 3 MA, equivalent to SCQF level 67 - or Highers or Advanced Highers at school - was required to sustain employment. There was a negative impact on job security and pay prospects from having level 2 apprenticeships.
Individual industries should be able to determine for themselves what level of qualification they require, and if the skills involved in a level 2 were sufficient, that was fine. But in that case, they should not be called apprenticeships; nor should they be funded by the government, Mr Smith said.
"If an industry argues that the jobs they have don't require a level 3 or above, they should seriously think about their level of ambition and how the jobs that they offer are designed, which is what proper workforce development is about."
The apparent gender imbalance in the MA scheme also remains a serious concern. Although 41 per cent of those starting MAs last year were female and the same percentage of those who successfully completed their programme were female, when it came to assessing how many of them were "in training" a number of months later, most of them were male.
According to figures from SDS, only a third of apprentices in training on 28 December last year were women, while two-thirds were male. Aisla McKay, professor of economics at Glasgow Caledonian University, has found that women are often involved in shorter apprenticeships, and there is a significant gender pay gap.
There was also a gender bias in government spending, she said. Customer services, for example, where apprentices are predominantly female, attracts pound;3,000 of funding per apprentice, while engineering and gas, which is male-dominated, attracts pound;9,000 for each 16- to 19-year-old Modern Apprentice.
Huge disparities continue to exist in the kind of frameworks women and men get involved in. "Traditional" frameworks such as those in the automotive industry, construction, plumbing and oil and gas extraction remain the preserve of men, and "non-traditional" frameworks such as childcare, early years, care and education are dominated by women.
More specifically, 95 per cent of apprentices in oil and gas extraction last year were male, as were 97 per cent of engineering apprentices; 97 per cent in those in children's care, learning and development were women.
"Constrained opportunities create labour market rigidities," Professor McKay said.
And Mr Smith added: "We are constraining the productive capacity of the workforce by limiting the opportunities open to over half the population." The number of people from ethnic minority backgrounds taking part in MAs was also still too low, he said.
Ms Constance admitted that more had to be done: "I'm proud that the uptake of apprenticeships by women has increased to 43 per cent under this government. But there is more to be done to encourage women to take up traditionally male Modern Apprenticeships."
So how can apprenticeships be improved for the future? Mr Yeates believes that there needs to be a "blurring of the edges" in MAs, so that they can be linked more closely to schools, colleges and universities.
Young people should be able to get involved with an MA programme during the senior phase of their school career and finish their training with a degree qualification, he said. "If it looks like they will go down a vocational route, why keep them in school for two more years?" Mr Yeates said.
The scheme will also have to move with the times - YoungScot, for instance, now runs apprenticeships through its digital academy, aiming to equip young people with digital skills.
Awareness of and attitudes towards existing apprenticeships will also need to change. All those involved should become "ambassadors for Modern Apprenticeships", said Fiona Stewart, national operations manager of SDS.
For more fundamental changes, Mr Smith recommends looking to European countries in general, and the Netherlands in particular, for inspiration.
"I don't believe that you can simply transpose a system from one country on to another and expect it to be similarly successful. But we can learn from elsewhere."
The Dutch system was industry-led through knowledge centres which involve employers and unions and are government-funded, Mr Smith said - they determine what training is required for an apprenticeship, design the qualification and accredit employers.
If such changes were to be made to the current system, however, care would need to be taken not to replicate mistakes made in England, said Professor Keep. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' pay survey in 2012 revealed that only half of apprentices were getting any off-the-job training, despite a supposed minimum of 100 hours, and a third said they received no on-the-job training, he said.
Ms Constance seems determined not to fall into such traps. "We must aspire to be the best in Europe, and we must strive to have some of the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe," she said.
96% - Proportion of employers who reported that Modern Apprenticeship completers were better able to do their job as a result of the MA
23 - Proportion who reported improved productivity, service quality or staff morale as a result of offering MAs
56% - Proportion who would not take on MAs at all if the public-sector contribution was cut
75% - Proportion of employers who regard MAs as important to their business
58% - Proportion who recruited MAs specifically for the training position
85% - Proportion who were satisfied with the relevance of training
75% - Proportion of non-participating employers who say they have at least some knowledge of MAs
92% - Proportion of apprentices still in work six months after finishing their apprenticeship
70% - Proportion of modern apprentices aged under 25 who were recruited specifically for the scheme or had been in employment for less than six months
79% - Proportion of apprentices employed specifically for the programme who were still in work six months after completion
18% - Proportion of non-participating employers who would consider offering MAs.
Source: SDS 2013
Work-ready engineers who blur the sector boundaries
The Engineers of the Future programme is an apprenticeship scheme where the boundaries between college, university and industry are very much "blurred".
Run by a partnership of Forth Valley College, Heriot-Watt University and industry, it aims to create work-ready engineering graduates through a combination of practical skills, work experience and academic study at master's level - providing a true alternative to the traditional university route.
In the five-year company-sponsored programme, as in all Modern Apprenticeships, learners achieve a qualification, in this case an MEng in mechanical, chemical and electrical or electronic engineering, while earning a salary.
In the first two years, learners split their time between the college and their sponsor company's workplace to gain their MA qualification and complete years 1 and 2 of their university degree. Their third year is spent at Heriot-Watt University, while their fourth and fifth years are divided between the university and their sponsor company's workplace, doing project and technical work.
Students on the scheme excel, scoring in the top five per cent of more than 250 BEng students at Heriot-Watt.
Initially, the scheme, which is supported by SDS and the Scottish government, was run solely with petrochemical company INEOS, but other partners have now joined.
Forth Valley College principal Linda McKay said: "For young people, it offers a superb training and professional development experience with great career options and a wage as you learn. For INEOS and other employers it offers talented high-performing engineers already skilled and well experienced in their industry."
Rachel Alexander, 17, from Grangemouth, is a first-year student on the programme with INEOS, specialising in chemical engineering. She was enjoying the combination of academic and practical work, she told TESS.
"It's a great opportunity to get hands-on work experience and I'm confident that when the course finishes, I'll be familiar with the plants and processes on the INEOS Grangemouth site. I feel I'll be more ready for the workplace than if I had followed the traditional university route to an engineering degree."
Receiving a salary and therefore avoiding student debt was another benefit of the programme, she added.
Fellow first-year Chris Filipiak, 24, from Edinburgh, who is specialising in mechanical engineering and is sponsored by FMC Technologies, previously studied at university for two years, but when that did not work out started considering apprenticeships.
He "jumped at the chance" to gain a degree while also getting practical experience, he said. "I've found the class sizes at college are much smaller than at university, and this has been hugely beneficial in terms of student support."
The workplace experience and industrial knowledge gained from college lecturers had also been a "massive benefit". "You also work within industry health and safety standards and develop a deeper understanding of why legislation is required."
Original headline: Can apprenticeships take Scotland to another level?