Katy Jones: Apprenticeship programme in need of rethink

DESPITE some early signs that we are moving towards economic recovery, youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, and has hovered at around the million mark for the past few years.

The UK youth unemployment rate now stands at 21 per cent for 16 to 24-year-olds and for Yorkshire and the Humber it is even higher, at 24 per cent.

There are a number of factors which are making it difficult for young people to enter and sustain work. But one key driver is the lack of a clear route into work for many young people as they seek to make their first steps from school into the jobs market.

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By offering a combination of education and work, apprenticeships have been touted as an important mechanism to smooth this transition, while also benefitting employers and the wider economy. But the current apprenticeship system has several limitations.

Apprenticeships are currently failing to provide many young people with a clear pathway into work. In 2011, only six per cent of teenagers aged 16 to 18 were enrolled on an apprenticeship programme.

While recent Government announcements have proclaimed record numbers of people now participate in apprenticeships, we know that it is often not young people that are benefiting. Instead, growing numbers of apprenticeships have been largely taken up by those aged over 25.

How do we get more young people into apprenticeships? Part of the answer is to promote them and their benefits more effectively. Young people need accurate information about what apprenticeships are available, and the opportunities they can lead onto. But the careers advice on offer in schools is variable.

Increasing both awareness of and demand for apprenticeships amongst young people is only part of the solution. We also need to see a huge increase in the numbers of high quality apprenticeships offered by employers. In the UK only a small fraction of UK employers (four per cent in 2009) take on apprentices.

It is important that we address this immediately. By 2015 the age of compulsory participation in education or training will have risen to 18; it is vital that there are enough opportunities to provide quality learning and training experiences for all young people who wish to pursue this pathway into work post-16.

Apprenticeships in particular have the potential to provide these.

But while increasing employer involvement is crucial, it is important that efforts to increase the number of apprenticeships do not deflect attention away from improving the educational and training content of apprenticeships.

A particularly striking finding from our research is the lower quality of apprenticeships in the UK compared to more successful systems across Europe. Our apprenticeships typically last for around 12 months, whereas in Germany the norm is three years.

Our research reveals that opportunities for off-the-job training are also lacking. In 2011, the Government set a minimum requirement for a third of training to be delivered off-the-job (around one day per month). However, a recent government survey found that one in five apprentices in England received neither on or off-the-job training. Unfortunately, the Government has chosen to respond to this challenge by reducing these requirements in its plans to reform the apprenticeship system.

In contrast, German apprentices typically spend at least 12 hours per week in off-site learning. This raises serious questions about the value of our current apprenticeship offer and whether it will give young people the skills they need to compete in a competitive marketplace.

We think the Government needs to focus on three key areas in order to make the apprenticeship system work for the UK’s young people: raising awareness of apprenticeship pathways for young people, engaging more employers, and enhancing their educational and training content. Our vocational system has been neglected for far too long. There is an urgent need to take bold action now.

• Katy Jones, from Wakefield, is the author of The Road Less Travelled? Improving the apprenticeship pathway for young people, the latest report from The Work Foundation.