News analysis - Apprenticeships begin to slip as the economy takes a slide

20th February 2009 at 00:00
The recession has forced employers to cut trainee numbers, but FE colleges have pledged to treble students on the scheme

"It's easier to get apprentices on board than you may think," Sir Alan Sugar says in the new round of advertisements timed to coincide with national Apprenticeship Week next week.

However, with early figures suggesting the first fall in numbers for years, it is increasingly clear that the difficulty in reaching the Government's target of 500,000 young people in the UK annually starting such training by 2020 is not in finding willing candidates, but rather the employers to hire them.

As attention turns to how the public sector can make a difference in the recession, colleges this week have announced how they intend to set an example, with a pledge to treble their numbers of apprentices to 1,500 by next year.

The Association of Colleges said a survey of 130 colleges suggested 78 per cent already were employing apprentices, with 500 places available. Chichester College had the largest number, with 30 trainees on its books.

College apprentices typically have jobs in business support or information technology but could work in areas from catering to landscape gardening.

David Collins, the AoC's president, said: "The survey shows that colleges are responding to the recession and playing their part in taking on apprentices.

"Given the importance of this issue to both the Government and the Opposition, I believe we have a great opportunity as colleges to take the lead and show other public-sector organisations our commitment to the initiative."

If colleges meet the target, it will mean 0.6 per cent of their 230,000 employees will be apprentices. Although this is a low figure, it is not far behind the 1 per cent in traditional industries, such as construction. However, as a measure of what it take to reach the Government's target, more than 1.7 per cent of the workforce will need to follow suit by 2020.

Bedford College has set a target of employing 2 per cent of its staff on apprenticeships. Colleges have a direct interest in helping to boost numbers - principals aware of the risk that if too few students are recruited, the unspent funding could go elsewhere.

"Apprenticeships could be the next Train to Gain," one said, referring to the precedent where repeated underspending eventually saw cash diverted from further education to universities.

The Learning and Skills Council's own research published last year suggested there was no shortage of demand from students, but difficulties in finding a willing employer prevented a quarter of potential trainees from beginning.

The number of available places has started to drop. This year, early figures suggest a fall of between 7 and 12 per cent from the same position last year in the number of teenagers starting training.

Not only does the Government face a huge task in hitting its target, but the Conservatives have attacked the central achievement of raising numbers over the last decade, saying that where it matters, they have fallen.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, said: "Right now, if employers want to take on an apprentice they have to go through nine layers of bureaucracy, and even then they will never actually see a penny . This is one of the main reasons why the number of real apprenticeships in our country is actually falling."

To the Tories, "real" apprenticeships exclude the classroom-based, "programme-led" courses, knocking about 10 per cent off the total. And they only count in comparison to level 3 courses (A-level equivalent) which resemble their 1994 modern apprenticeship scheme.

That glosses over the move to level 2 (equivalent to five GCSEs), which is partly responsible for an increase in completions. Even then, the final year of the last Conservative government, 1996-07, saw fewer level 3 apprentices start than last year. But there are signs of a decline.

Employers took 224,000 apprentices last year. Next year, with a budget of more than Pounds 1 billion, the government aim is to recruit "well over" 250,000 starters. To counteract the disappearance of places with private employers, it has announced an extra 35,000 public sector apprenticeships, at a cost of an extra Pounds 140 million.

Traditionally, the public sector has provided very few apprenticeships compared with private companies or charities. A further 10,000 places are expected to come from changes to contract-procurement rules - which will require companies working on government projects to recruit apprentices - and 3,000 from places at retail companies which are banking on growth, even in a shrinking market.

In some sectors, the downturn has been dramatic already. Construction, one of the first industries to be hit by recession, has seen the number of new apprentices fall by 30 per cent - more than 6,000 places - this academic year.

It has prompted ConstructionSkills, the relevant sector skills council, to take action, setting up its own matching service, stealing a march on the National Apprenticeship Service, which plans a similar nationwide system to help people looking for places.

However, instead of finding places for new trainees, the ConstructionSkills system is set up to catch those who have been laid off and are at risk of dropping out. So far it has picked up nearly 1,500 apprentices who have been displaced in the past four months, and has found new places for 30 per cent of them.

The sector skills council is also calling for financial incentives from the Government to help employers absorb the costs of having apprentices, at least for the next two years. Then, it is predicted, the industry should be growing again.

Nigel Donohue, apprenticeship programme manager for ConstructionSkills, said: "The last time we had an economic downturn, companies stopped training and it took a long time for us (the industry) to come out of it.

"They stopped training in the 1990s and it didn't really pick up again until early this decade. Now they recognise that was a threat to their business."

Tomorrow's losses, page 6.

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