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Apprenticeships: The road less travelled

A new policy paper, The Road Less Travelled? Improving the apprenticeship pathway for young people, examines the current state of apprenticeships in the UK and suggests how this should be improved for today’s service economy. The report's author, Researcher at The Work Foundation, Katy Jones, summarises the key points.

The report highlights some significant limitations of the UK’s current apprenticeship system. A strong apprenticeship system should be a key part of tackling the UK’s youth unemployment crisis, combining education with work apprenticeships can provide a clear route from school to work for young people wishing to pursue a vocational path. But the report showed that many apprenticeships are too short (typically lasting for around 12 months); too many are of a low standard (last year 68 percent of under-25s started an apprenticeship at level two, equivalent to five GCSEs), and employer engagement in the system has so far been severely lacking, limiting both the supply of apprenticeships and the extent to which they reflect employer needs. The weakness of our system is particularly striking if we compare it to those European countries with more successful systems, where apprenticeships typically last for around three years, where level three apprenticeships (equivalent to two A Levels) are the norm, and where almost all employers are involved in developing a high quality and responsive apprenticeship system.

Issues of quality, of educational content, and of duration are typically most pronounced in the service sector. This is problematic, because the UK economy is predominantly a service economy. The service sector accounts for 85 percent of UK employment, and is where most young people will look for their first job. Furthermore, the service sector is where most apprenticeships are available. In 2011/12 eight of the top ten industries by number of apprenticeships were in the service sector, in industries such as customer service and business administration. Apprenticeships can work well in these industries, especially in those with high, or with specific skill demands. But they must be brought up to the level of the highly sought after apprenticeships in sectors such as high-end engineering, some of which have application rates above those of the top UK universities.

In our report, we identify the adult social care sector as one where apprenticeships have the potential to work well, and where growing the number of high quality apprenticeships could offer a strong vocational alternative to academic routes into the labour market across the country. However, currently this sector is characterised by low pay and by poor progression routes and the educational and training content of apprenticeships in social care is often weak, in 2012 only a third reported having both on and off the job training, with a fifth having had neither. Following several reports and consultations including the influential Wolf Review of vocational education and the Richard Review of apprenticeships, the Government is starting to take steps to reform the apprenticeship system, with a particular focus in putting employers ‘in the driving seat’. As part of this a series of ‘Trailblazer’ pilots have recently been announced with the aim to generate ‘gold standard’ apprenticeships in sectors with high skill demands including Aerospace, Automotive, Food and Drink Manufacturing and Life Sciences. The Trailblazers are a welcome development and should provide employers and professional bodies with the opportunity to engage and develop the new apprenticeship standards for occupations within their sector.

However, whilst we welcome the focus on developing and growing the number of apprentices in sectors with significant skill demands, we believe that the limited representation of service industries amongst the Trailblazers is a missed opportunity. Their inclusion would have helped to pave the way for improvements where it is most needed, and in sectors which provide the vast majority of UK jobs and apprenticeships. We therefore recommend that the Government should support additional Trailblazers in sectors employing the largest numbers of young people such as health and social care, business administration, and customer services. With record levels of youth unemployment, a much stronger vocational system is essential to help young people make the difficult first steps into the labour market. Apprenticeships should be a part of this, but the system requires significant improvement. Current limitations require particularly urgent attention in the service industries, which employ large numbers of young people.

Katy Jones Researcher and Report Author
The Work Foundation

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