In June 2015, the government introduced a target of three million apprenticeships by 2020. They brought this target in because they recognised that apprenticeships are a good way for young people to develop skills that prepare them for the world of work. This also encourages employers to recognise the benefits of apprenticeships. Because of the benefits that apprenticeships have for both employers and young people, the government has promised to improve the quality and quantity of apprenticeships by 2020. Their overall goal is that there will be apprenticeships for young people available across all sectors, across the country, and at different levels. However, while at the moment it seems that they are on their way to hitting the three million target by 2020, they may be missing the point when it comes to providing young people and employers high quality apprenticeships.
In July’s Queen’s Speech the government promised to ensure that “people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future”. In April, the Institute of Apprenticeships started its first working day. Independent from the government, the aim of the Institute is to ensure there are high-quality apprenticeships available in the UK. However, according to a study conducted in October 2015, the majority of apprenticeships are part of a tick box exercise rather than high-quality pathways into long term employment. In 2015, the Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that it was “little short of a disaster” that only 5% of young people went into apprenticeships at 16, and that apprenticeships were poor quality, failing to provide young people with the skills that employers need. He also accused schools of failing to prepare young people for the world of work.
There are several things that are needed to continuously improve the quality of apprenticeships, so that they are considered another route into the world of work by young people and a way to train young people in the skills they need by employers.
Data on the long-term outcomes should be published regularly – apprentices’ long-term earnings and employment outcomes – this would be a good measure of the quality of apprenticeships. There should be more skill content in order to match the level of apprenticeships in countries such as Germany and to make sure that young people have the range of skills that employers need. In relation to this, young people should be learning at levels just above those that they already have in order to make sure that they are constantly improving and adding to their repertoire of skills.
Two and a half million apprenticeships were created during the coalition between 2010 and 2015, and the number has slowly increased since then. Over the 2015/16 academic year, there were 509,400 apprenticeship starts. Of those, 131,400 were under 19, meaning that more young people are seeing apprenticeships as their pathway into long-term employment, as opposed to the more traditional route of university. A key example of how effective an apprenticeship can be is the fact that 90% of apprentices currently go into work or further training.
As of March 2014, 44% of businesses planned to take on apprentices by 2019, just one year before the government target of 3m by 2020. Companies running apprenticeships for young people include: Barclays; Network Rail; the NHS; Costa Coffee; and the BBC.
Are apprenticeships hitting the mark in terms of targets and quality? It is hard to be definitive when there are three years to go to hit the three million target; the quality of apprenticeships could improve a lot in that time. But it’s going to involve a lot of hard work from the government and employers. In order to make sure there are three million high quality apprenticeships by 2020, and that they stay of a high quality, there are several things that should be done. As well as collecting data on all those starting and completing apprenticeships, there should also be case studies from both young people and employers to show the benefits that these bring, both to individuals and organisations. On the practical side of things, it is important that high quality apprenticeships are kept relevant and adapt to the skills and qualities the world of work needs. Only then will three million apprenticeships be hitting the point.