Why we must tackle inequality in apprenticeships

Government, training providers and employers need to broaden access to learning at work, writes Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

Learning in the workplace is about more than just apprenticeships, writes Stephen Evans

This week is Learning at Work Week. I first came across this when I was working in the Treasury and someone came in to teach us juggling. There’s a joke about circus skills, policy and politics in there somewhere, I’m sure…

But beyond the juggling, there’s an important point. Learning at work can help to increase an individual’s earnings and wellbeing and employers’ productivity and competitiveness. New data from the Office for National Statistics last week showed that.

Its analysts found that people in professional and skilled trades occupations who got training at work saw a roughly 9 per cent increase in their weekly earnings compared with similar people in similar jobs who did not get training. There were wage benefits to training for most people in most lines of work, though they vary significantly by occupation, sector and skill level.

More on this: OECD: Adult education 'needs sustainable funding'

Insight: 'Now is the time to give adults the right to free basic digital skills training'

Other news: Hammond pledges £100m for National Retraining Scheme

Improving productivity

Many of our Festival of Learning winners demonstrate this, from employers improving their productivity by training their workforce, to learning providers helping people to progress at work or make a career change.

The problem is that overall levels of training at work are lower in this country than in many other countries, with major inequalities by demographic group, occupation and sector, and skill level.

What is particularly stark is that those who already have higher skills and work in higher occupations are far more likely to get training at work. In other words, patterns of training at work are reinforcing existing inequalities in learning (and earning potential) rather than tackling them.

One in three people with degrees have taken part in training at work in the past three months, compared with fewer than one in 10 people with no qualifications. Younger people are one third more likely to get training than older people. To an extent that is to be expected, given their relative experience of and in the labour market. But longer working lives combined with ongoing economic change obviously increases the need to continue learning throughout our lives.

Apprenticeship inequality

There are other inequalities, too. For example, women are more likely to take part in training at work (28 per cent versus 24 per cent of men) but spend less time training, even accounting for their greater likelihood of working part-time (men spent 6.2 per cent of usual working hours training, compared with 5.4 per cent for women).

Together, these findings mirror what Learning and Work Institute’s annual survey of adults’ participation in learning shows.

This leads us on to policy. The government’s major policy for training at work is, of course, apprenticeships. It’s well documented that there have been sharp rises in higher apprenticeships and falls in lower-level apprenticeship since the introduction of the levy and other reforms. This was the predictable and predicted consequence of the structure of the levy and the way it was introduced – if you give employers leadership, it turns out they make similar choices to the ones they made before the levy without effective incentives to do otherwise.  

Increasing employer investment

The rise in higher apprenticeships is a great thing, but public policy should surely be trying to both increase employer investment and engagement in training and tackle inequalities, rather than reinforcing them. That’s why the government needs to make further changes to the levy and apprenticeship system.

I also think we need to recognise that there’s more to learning at work than apprenticeships (notwithstanding the juggling). That includes the learning that employers fund directly, informal learning from colleagues, and other forms of learning and training, too. I’m pleased the government is developing a National Retraining Scheme, in part to recognise this gap in policy.

I hope this is a first step in a broader approach to learning, though, of course, the devil is in the detail. But it’s not just about public policy and spending. It’s also about employers behaviour, business strategy and recognition of the productivity benefits of investing in learning and training across the spectrum (not just at higher qualification levels). That requires a holistic approach by national and local government and also employers themselves.

Learning at work has a range of benefits for people and employers. There’s lots of great practice around and some amazing employers. But government, training providers and employers need to work together to tackle inequalities in access to learning which risk simply reinforcing existing inequalities.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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