Apprentices need spur to see their training through to completion, says taskforce. Joseph Lee reports
The number of apprentices completing their courses needs to double within 10 years if England is to compete with other European countries, research has found.
New figures from the apprenticeships taskforce reveal that, for the first time, more than a third of young trainees completed their courses in the last academic year.
But a report commissioned by the task force from Leicester university, said England needs 65-70 per cent of apprentices to finish their course to compete with countries such as Germany.
Wales faces an even harder task, with only 14 per cent completing their training, according to the most recent figures.
In Scotland, modern apprenticeships - equivalent to England's advanced level - have a 54 per cent completion rate.
Better management by local learning and skills councils and training providers was most likely to help apprentices stay the course, according to John West of Leicester university's centre for labour market studies. In the best LSC area, covering Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole, 43 per cent of young people complete their training, compared with just 20 per cent in west London.
But the study contradicts many of the traditional explanations for high drop-out rates. For example, younger apprentices are often regarded as feckless, yet in some areas they are more likely to be successful than older trainees, the report found.
Despite a wide variation in the numbers completing apprenticeships across a range of industries, the study noted that the differences between local LSCs were greater.
The research also debunks the claim that low unemployment was discouraging people from finishing apprenticeships and drawing them straight into full-time work. North Yorkshire is among the areas where many apprentices complete their training, despite jobs being plentiful.
Birmingham's success counters suggestions that deprived inner-cities surrounded by wealthier suburbs are more vulnerable to high drop-out rates.
But Mr West said low unemployment might account for some of the difference between drop-out rates in England and Germany.
"The 'pull' factor of better prospects elsewhere appears to be entirely absent in Germany," he said.
Mr West attributed the gap to a more heavily regulated labour market and the high social status of trades in Germany.
As well as focusing managers' attention by setting the target to reduce drop-out rates, Mr West recommended the introduction of a probationary period to help identify apprentices who have made the wrong choice and need to be re-directed.
Trainees should be given better advice, and employers should encourage them to continue their apprenticeships, even if they are offered a new job at the same company, he said.
Sir Roy Gardner, chairman of the apprenticeships taskforce, said: "We need a sharp increase if we are to reap the business benefits that apprentices can offer in very competitive global markets."
In Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole, the learning and skills council said its success with apprentices had been helped by long-established relationships with training organisations, including colleges, which keep them informed of potential problems.
Sunseeker, a firm which makes motor yachts and speedboats, has offered apprenticeships for more than two decades. About 200 young people each year apply for 20 places. Julie Pike, director of skills at the local LSC, said:
"We have a long history of focusing on success rates rather than just the volume of trainees.
"We make sure they have had the right information and advice and are making the right choices."
She said changes to funding will reduce the incentive for LSCs to sacrifice quality for volume in the future.
Editor's comment 4 Improving completion rates in apprenticeship, available from www.employersforapprentices.gov.uk