Sydney Price does not wear an overall to work. She doesn’t use heavy tools either, or spend her day on a building site or a workshop. Her job entails handling calls and visitors at the company’s front desk, helping with event management and training colleagues. And yet, Price is an apprentice, only about six months into her training.
For years, apprenticeships were thought of as a dusty, old-fashioned way to train young people to work in industries such as carpentry and plumbing. But the apprenticeship programme now encompasses much more than that.
Alongside the government’s reform programme, which includes a target of creating 3 million apprenticeships and the introduction of a levy on large businesses to fund this expansion, there has also been significant diversification in the type of training covered.
Apprentices can be hired at everything from level 2 (GCSE equivalent) to level 7, on a par with a master’s degree. The profile of apprentices is also increasingly disparate. While the term is often associated with young people at the start of their careers, only a quarter of apprenticeship starts since August 2014 have been taken up by those under the age of 19.
More than 40 per cent have been taken by apprentices older than 25; at the other end of the spectrum, more than 3,400 people aged 60 and over started an apprenticeship between August 2016 and April 2017. As skills minister Anne Milton insisted unapologetically a year ago, apprenticeships are for anyone, “whatever their background and whatever their age”.
But when an apprenticeship represents so many different types of training for people from such a wide range of backgrounds, does the programme really work for everyone?
Two major new pieces of research released by academics at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) have analysed earnings data for around 565,000 students who left compulsory education in 2002-03, as well as the Labour Force Survey, to provide the most comprehensive answer to this question to date. They conclude that while most people do indeed gain from doing an apprenticeship, the extent of this gain varies significantly and depends very much on age and gender. Those with most to gain tend to be male, as well as those who start their apprenticeship at a younger age.
But with the differences largely tied to pay in the different sectors into which apprentices go, the findings also highlight the importance of school and college careers advisers being clued up to the earnings potential of a variety of different apprenticeships.
“For men, the [pay] differential is very high on average, especially for advanced apprenticeships. For women, the differential is roughly half the size and is especially modest for advanced apprenticeships by the age of 28,” says the report, authored by Chiara Cavaglia, Guglielmo Ventura and Sandra McNally from CVER.
Much of the gender difference in earnings, they explain, is attributable to the sector in which an individual works. There is a higher concentration of men in sectors, such as engineering, where the return to an apprenticeship is high, while women are specialised in areas where the returns are much lower, such as child development.
While the gross annual earnings payoff at age 23 for men who undertook a level 3 apprenticeship in engineering is 37.8 per cent (meaning they can earn 37.8 per cent more than those who did not do an apprenticeship), it is only 4.5 per cent for women who did an apprenticeship at level 3 in child development. Overall, the earnings differential at the age of 23 for men starting a level 3 apprenticeship was 30.3 per cent – more than double the 14.3 per cent reported for women.
“Thus, the extent to which having an apprenticeship matters for future earnings is largely dependent on the sector of vocational education that is actually chosen,” explains the report, adding that the “hours gap” in terms of hours worked accounts for some of the gender gap in earnings – much of which is linked to having children.
“A practical implication is that careers information for students should pay careful attention to the type of apprenticeships available rather than to encourage students to take any type of apprenticeship at all,” the report states.
Careers advice is key in tackling the gender gap in apprenticeships, according to Women’s Engineering Society chief executive Kirsten Bodley: “It is a real shame that so little has been done to address the lack of girls and women in certain apprenticeships,” she says.
“There is a feeling that still, apprenticeships are not a very safe and good route to go down, and that it is the less academic learners’ route to take, which is so unfortunate. There is a real need for that perception to change. If you are talking about Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] apprenticeships, there is still that perception that it is [all about sectors with] hard hats, and it is hard to change that image. But there are a few things that can be done.”
Emily Chapman, vice-president for FE at the NUS students’ union, says that careers advice plays “a huge role in supporting prospective apprentices and getting people onto courses that are the best fit for skills and preparing them for the future”.
“However, we know that this advice is not up to scratch,” she adds. “The government advice is to use the National Careers Service for guidance, despite its not providing any information on degree apprenticeships, for example. Until all routes are clearly signposted and all learners, regardless of age and gender, are considered equal, these disparities will continue.”
Euan Blair, founder of apprenticeship organisation WhiteHat, says women are more likely to apply for the kind of apprenticeships his company is involved with, but he says this is at least partly down to its conscious approach to how roles are advertised. “We should be doing much more in terms of how we write a job description, to how we describe roles and where we advertise them. Those are really good ways to help.”
He adds: “We work with a lot of employers who want to get more women into tech and into apprenticeships, but it is not enough to say, ‘We want to employ this many women’. Apprenticeships can be that mechanism to spread diversity, because you can take people from a standing start.”
Age also plays a significant role when it comes to the long-term financial benefit of starting an apprenticeship. A separate piece of research by Steven McIntosh and Damon Morris from the Department of Economics at the University of Sheffield shows that younger people benefit significantly more in terms of earnings differential than those over 25.
It states: “The results show that for every pair of estimates, the daily earnings differential [the difference in differences] received by 19- to 24-year-old apprentices is greater than that for apprentices aged 25 plus. Hence the increase in earnings following completion of an apprenticeship, relative to the change in earnings for non-achievers, is always larger for the younger apprentice group. In most cases, the differential is around twice as large.”
Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, says he is not surprised the benefits are greater for younger people than for those coming to an apprenticeship later in life. “It is understandable that it has different benefits for people at different points in their career. It is not surprising that an older learner doesn’t benefit as much. But with the apprenticeship brand being about workplace development and moving through the levels and the roles in the work place, I don’t think there is anything wrong in supporting different cohorts.”
The researchers draw positive conclusions from their findings: “Overall, the results in this paper should give cause for optimism that apprenticeships really do generate a positive return in the labour market for young people. This is not driven purely by selection. Increasing opportunities for young people to access apprenticeships does seem to be a worthwhile policy, especially since these returns are experienced by individuals who leave school with low-medium qualifications.”
However, McNally says the findings of the two pieces of research pose broader questions for the government’s apprenticeship policy: “When we think about the number of apprenticeships that are being created, we should think more about the kind of apprenticeships being created,” she says. “We should think about how good these kind of apprenticeships are and who they are for.”
Julia Belgutay is an FE reporter for Tes. She tweets @JBelgutay‘