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Comment - Supporting apprenticeships

A new approach to apprenticeships is required in a world where almost half of places go to over-25s, says Tess Lanning.

A new edited collection by the Institute for Public Policy Research, 'Rethinking Apprenticeships', shows that behind the apparent success of apprenticeships in recent years, all is not what it seems. Large increases in numbers over the last decade have been achieved through a considerable change in what most people would understand as an apprenticeship.

The majority of us when asked what an apprenticeship looks like, would imagine a young person, probably a man, learning relatively high-level skills in what John Hayes, the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, has called an 'oily rag trade'. Engineering is still one of the top ten apprenticeship sectors, but the low-paid service sector dominates, with customer service, business administration, and hospitality and catering topping the list.

The shift from an industrial to a service economy is only part of this story. Government targets to increase the number of apprenticeships, combined with a lack of interest from many employers, have led to a watering down of what constitutes an apprenticeship. Although the Conservative Party criticised this approach, apprenticeship policy under the Coalition is still grounded in government targets.

As a result, a vast array of training programmes now sit under the apprenticeship banner. Yet an engineering apprenticeship is completely different - in terms of pay, duration, training, level of skill imparted, and the prestige and career opportunities - from an apprenticeship in retail. More than half of engineering apprenticeships are offered at level 3, compared to just 22 per cent in customer service and 13 per cent in hospitality and catering. While an engineering apprentice enjoys an average of 10 hours a week in off-the-job learning, for a retail or customer service apprentice the average in 2008 was just one hour. Minimum stipulations brought in this year bring this up to under two hours a week - still well below what other European countries would expect.

The growth of low-quality apprenticeships devalues the apprenticeship 'brand'. This is not to say that an apprenticeship in retail cannot be good quality, or that only male crafts count as skilled work. But employers who already offer world-class apprenticeships should defend them as a high-quality route into employment. The goal should be to put apprenticeships on a par with university, underpinned by much higher regulatory standards than exist at the moment. Doubling the requirements for off-the-job learning would be a good start.

At the same time, there is a need to raise the number of high-quality apprenticeships. In other countries a statutory minimum duration of an apprenticeship - usually three years - combined with a lower training allowance is designed to allow employers to recoup the costs of training when an apprentice becomes more productive later on. Apprentices in England tend to be seen as workers rather than learners, and are paid much higher amounts than in other countries. Employers in traditional apprenticeship sectors, where wages are highest, could reduce the training allowance and increase the number of apprenticeships on offer. Heavy competition for apprenticeship places suggests they could still attract high calibre recruits.

In an increasingly competitive job market, employers have become reluctant to hire young people who often lack social skills. This is reflected in the fact that apprenticeships are also no longer exclusively about entry to the labour market. Last year 40 per cent of apprenticeships went to over 25s, the vast majority of whom are existing employees.

However, employers should not be passive consumers of state education and training. To ensure they get the skills they want, employers should call for the devolution of the responsibility for developing the content and assessment processes for apprentices to local partnerships between representatives of employers, employees and local educational institutions, as is the case in Europe. These measures would save the apprenticeship brand, helping to cement it as a powerful tool to support a more dynamic economy and support young people to become the skilled workers of tomorrow. *

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