While apprentices discovered this week that their minimum wage will go up by 5p to pound;2.65 an hour from October, a new survey shows that how much they get on top of that is very much dependent on what part of the UK they live in.
And, with criticism of the quality of the apprenticeship programme already mounting in the face of rapid expansion, the 2011 apprenticeship pay survey, published this week, adds further fuel to the fire.
While some critics, not least shadow FE minister Gordon Marsden, have already warned that many apprenticeships in the UK are less rigorous than those overseas, the research shows that there is considerable variation between the pay and conditions of apprentices in the home nations.
Perhaps surprisingly, the survey reveals that apprentices in Wales are the best paid in the UK, receiving on average pound;6.62 an hour. This is almost pound;1 an hour more than their counterparts in Northern Ireland (pound;5.70), and 80p more than those taking apprenticeships in England (pound;5.80). This means Welsh apprentices take home, on average, almost pound;30 a week more than their peers over the border in England, despite having lower living costs.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills research attributes the "significant" differences to the "profile" of the apprenticeship brand around the UK.
Alastair Thomson, principal policy and advocacy officer at adult learning body Niace, believes that the discrepancy could be down to the higher numbers of unionised, public sector workers in Wales benefiting from collective pay deals. He welcomed the higher pay rates for apprentices in fields such as team leadership and customer service. "You could say that taking up an apprenticeship in some sectors would be a viable alternative to university," he said.
Across the UK, four in five apprentices are contracted for at least 30 hours a week, with the average contract being for 34.5 hours. Worryingly, 5 per cent of apprentices said their contracted hours were fewer than 16 hours a week - fewer than is allowed under guidelines in England. According to the report's authors, people in this group are most likely to be under 18, from an ethnic minority or training in the retail or children's care sectors.
Apprentices were also asked whether they received off- and on-the-job training. While 46 per cent said they received off-the-job training, such as workshops, courses and distance learning, and 69 per cent were trained on the job, this represents a drop from 2007, when the respective figures were 57 per cent and 85 per cent. "It is a worry that one in five apprentices in England said they did neither of these forms of training," the report says.
In England, apprentices are required to carry out 280 guided learning hours a year, including 100 hours of off-the-job training. "It does make you wonder, are they really on what we would call apprenticeships?" Mr Thomson said. "Employers can call whatever they want an apprenticeship as long as it's in the contract."
Apprentices in Northern Ireland were the most likely to train off the job (56 per cent), with Scottish apprentices the most likely to train on the job (78 per cent). On average, apprentices carried out 6.4 hours of off- the-job training and 12.5 hours of on-the-job training per week.
While many might expect a gender divide on pay, few would have expected female apprentices to earn, on average, 18p an hour more than their male colleagues, as the research shows.
It also reveals that seven out of 10 UK apprentices have worked for their current employer previously. This could partly be down to qualifications from the former Train to Gain programme being rebadged as apprenticeships, Mr Thomson believes.
Average weekly pay for apprentices
pound;229 - Wales
pound;219 - Scotland
pound;200 - England and Northern Ireland.