The rise in apprenticeships is not as good as it looks

Jonathan Clifton, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, explains why the rise in apprenticeships is not as good as it looks.

Jonathan Clifton is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

New government statistics show there has been a big rise in apprenticeships – with an increase of 13.9% compared to the previous year. Business secretary Vince Cable described this as ‘turning the tide’ on a lack of trained workers.

In a time of high unemployment, this headline increase in apprenticeships is welcome. But on closer inspection the figures reveal some more worrying trends.

To most people, talk of ‘apprenticeship’ conjures up the idea of young people leaving school and heading off to learn a skilled trade. More of this activity is certainly needed in the UK, with predictions youth unemployment might top 1 million again this year.

But the figures released today show most of the growth in apprenticeships has actually been for people over the age of 25, many of whom are already in work. Meanwhile, the number of school leavers going into an apprenticeship has actually fallen by 1.4 per cent in the last year.

So today’s figures show employers are still reluctant to take on young people and train them up.

Most of the growth in apprenticeships has actually come from adults who are already in work (this group now makes up nearly half of all apprentices). At the same time, the number of adults getting workplace skills training has been cut by almost exactly the same amount.

It seems employers have simply shifted their workers onto apprenticeships in order to get government funding for training.

What’s more, the apprenticeships that are on offer do not necessarily offer the sort of high quality training people expect. While there are some excellent apprenticeships (such as those in engineering that tend to last for several years and include substantial amounts of academic study), these tend to be in the minority.

As today’s figures show, the majority of apprenticeships are found in low paid service sectors which offer training a much lower skill level with fewer opportunities for progression. Last year, just over half as many apprentices started in engineering and manufacturing (59,480) than in retail and commercial enterprise (108,300).

As IPPR argued in a recent report (pdf), if apprenticeships are going to provide a solution to youth unemployment and low skills, the government needs to focus on quality as well as quantity. On that count, we haven’t turned the tide yet.

See also:

Where next for apprenticeships after the heads of the schemes resign?January 19th, 2012

How well does Boris do on apprenticeships?January 9th, 2012

Making apprenticeships work for the economyFebruary 7th, 2011

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