Do apprentices get enough support?

From female school leavers to those from low-income families, is enough being done to make sure anyone can do an apprenticeship and that the programme experience is a positive one?

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More than 30% of people who start apprenticeships in Britain do not complete them.

Plenty of young people will have chosen not to return to university this term, in fact last year drop-out rates among university students went up for the third year in a row, according to official statistics. Meanwhile, figures recently released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), showed that 26,000 students in England who began the first year of their degree in 2015 did not finish the year.

But apprentices drop out too. Last year, the Skills Commission’s Spotlight On…Apprenticeships And Social Mobility said: “More than 30% of people who start apprenticeships in Britain do not complete them, and numbers are worsening every year.”

This is something worth tackling – especially as so much effort is going into encouraging young people to start apprenticeships – and it’s arguably even more important than university drop-outs, as the government (which pays for the apprenticeship training that’s gone to waste) loses the money its invested in trainees, as well the whole of the UK: we’re missing out on vital, specifically trained and skilled new members of the workforce.

This the same time the UK is facing an expensive skills shortage and its economy looks even less secure in light of Brexit.

And of course, apprentices themselves are missing out, by not achieving tailor-made experience and qualifications for future jobs, debt free

Supporting young women into apprenticeships

The government should remove any barriers preventing young women embarking on apprenticeships, according to a report published in Janurary by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women and Work.

The report, How to Recruit Women for the 21st Century, is the product of a year’s research by the APPG, which is jointly chaired by MPs Jess Phillips and Gillian Keegan.

It says the government needs to start up an apprenticeship bursary fund to provide access to training to the poorest women and other under-represented groups, as well as support with transport costs for apprenticeships.

It also recommends that Apprenticeship Levy funding is broadened so it can be used to train female contractors, freelancers and agency workers.

The report is designed to offer employers a toolkit they can use to attract, recruit and support more women.

It says employers should advertise roles as being open to flexible working, minimising unconscious bias in interviews and taking care around the wording in recruitment adverts in case the use of language is inadvertently gendered.

When looking at job design, it says: “When designing a job, review and refresh the advert and/or job specification that has been previously used.

“Consider the degree of flexibility that the role can accommodate, do not default to the traditional way the role has been carried out. Could it be part-time, job-share or work from home? Could elements of different jobs be combined to make a new role?”

It also recommends that employers offer refreshment training programmes so returners are up to date with the latest progressions in their field. In organisations where they struggle to recruit women, they should consider either running or backing outreach initiatives that encourage more females to consider working in these sectors.

Sophie Wingfield, head of policy at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which has called for greater flexibility in how organisations spend their apprenticeship levy, welcomed the APPG’s recommendations.

She said: “The APPG adopting our recommendation to broaden the apprenticeship levy into a training and skills levy that can be used to train temporary workers is a good step forward to allowing women to progress their chosen careers.

“A flexible levy would also help more women to access jobs in key sectors that are finding it difficult to find the staff that they need. This mirrors the core recommendation from the REC’s Future of Jobs commission which said changes to the levy will benefit employers and ultimately the HM Treasury through productivity gains.”

“Consider the degree of flexibility that the role can accommodate, do not default to the traditional way the role has been carried out. Could it be part-time, job-share or work from home? Could elements of different jobs be combined to make a new role?”

Supporting apprentices from low-income families

Another issue preventing many embarking on an apprenticeship is money – for lots of people, the apprentice minimum wage isn’t enough. Last year, Catherine McGuinness – Policy Chairman at the City of London Corporation – releasing a statement saying: “The government’s aim of addressing skills issues through apprenticeships is welcome. However, the apprenticeship minimum wage £3.50 per hour is simply not sufficient to live.

“Nearly half of apprentices are over 25 and low pay excludes older people with families and young people not living with their parents. And while larger firms often have the capacity to offer quality apprenticeship programmes, smaller firms can lack the resources, knowledge and expertise required.

“Our work with SMEs has revealed a real desire for smaller firms to work together to access training and share knowledge and employ apprentices, but often they cannot secure the training they require. The government should support these employers to collaborate and incentivise bigger firms to open-up their apprenticeship training to smaller firms.”

Responding to an announcement from the Living Wage Foundation, offering recommendations for the Government’s Low Pay Commission to meet their “aspiration to end low pay”, Adam Williamson, Head of Professional Standards, AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians), said: "Employers, including AAT, who have Living Wage Foundation accreditation are going above and beyond their legal requirements by paying the Living Wage, it sets a strong tone – not only to employees but to customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

"With a third of AAT’s student population being aged under 25 and with over 10,000 studying apprenticeship schemes, we support the National Union of Student’s description of the apprenticeship wage as “exploitative” and believe they should also receive the standard minimum wage.

"All businesses, large and small, should consider signing up to the Living Wage to help eradicate low pay and act to the benefit of students, apprentices, small business owners, skilled workers and many other employees."

Amelia Womack – the Green Party’s deputy leader in England and Wales – also highlighted the issue when she called for a living wage boost for apprentices at the party’s 2018 conference.

 “If we want to build a working environment that is fair for everyone, we have to make things fair from your very first job onwards,” she said. “A fair workplace has to be fair for apprentices as well. So today we are also pledging our official support for a living wage for apprentices. The current minimum wage for apprentices is £3.70 per hour.

“Three quarters of young people polled this year have said that low pay would put them off taking up an apprenticeship.

“It is no wonder that we have a skills shortage in this country. It is time that the political class woke up to the value of investing in training and apprenticeships, to the hardships facing young people today and to the realities of pay inequality in Britain.”

Improving the apprentice experience

Even if enough financial support is given to apprentices, what about the programmes themselves? How are they to be improved, so the user experience is as good as it can be?

Nor has enough been done to ensure investment in personnel who will monitor and support apprenticeships over a year. Young people are not guaranteed stability and security. If the businesses to which they are attached go under, so do the apprenticeships. If providers struggle to recruit supervisors to oversee and visit apprentices, then vital support is withheld.

Yvonne Williams, head of English and drama in a school in the South of England, told TES last month that the following improvements are needed to support UK apprentices:

  1. Widespread research is needed that actively seeks out the views of the young people who have completed training, not forgetting those who have had to give up for a variety of reasons. In that way, improvements based on best practice can be made and poor provision weeded out.
  2. Better monitoring. Nor has enough been said about the investment in personnel to monitor and support apprenticeships over a year. Young people are not guaranteed stability and security. If the businesses to which they are attached go under, so do the apprenticeships. If providers struggle to recruit supervisors to oversee and visit apprentices, then vital support is withheld.
  3. Contingencies. If we are to have a fair and equal society, then providers and relevant ministers need to take specific, practical steps to ensure that apprenticeships at all levels have contingencies built in to prevent the collapse of an apprenticeship part way through. They must ensure that young people are properly supervised and that consistent high-quality training is genuinely available.
  4. Hardship funds. Undergraduates have access to hardship funds supplied by universities out of donations from grateful post-graduates. Isn’t it time for the businesses, which will benefit in the short, medium and long-term, to provide a similar range to support the poorest of young people to achieve their ambitions?

Training provider CEO, Joe Crossley, of Qube Learning also told us recently that more should be done to improve the programmes themselves, and issues of continuity during an apprentice’s training:

 

“There are mechanisms and processes that should be put in place to help reduce dropout rates of students across the sector,” 

“The first and most important thing for any training provider is to ensure the programmes are interesting, engaging and accessible. Once you have captured a student’s attention through a challenging, engaging program their desire to progress and achieve will ensure their personal goal stays at the forefront. After all every student starts a program with the aim of completing it.

“One of the great things about the Apprenticeship Levy is that it has given the employer more control over apprenticeship funding. Where this does present a challenge, however, is the loss of ability for training providers to follow students who change employer midway through their programme.  It is becoming more difficult to continue delivery in these instances, as the changes to funding do not make it easy for employers to re-invest in these circumstances.  We are quickly seeing changes in employer as the most common reason for exiting our students.”

There is also a way that current apprentices can help improve programmes for future school leavers, by giving feedback on their experience via text message – a new service set up by the National Apprenticeship Service.

The system works intuitively. If apprentices give positive responses to questions, they can reply with positive, supportive messages. If an apprentice’s response suggests that they’re not getting the support they need or they’re not happy with their apprenticeship, the National Apprenticeship Service can point them to useful resources.

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