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The future of apprenticeships is brighter than we think

In a Guardian article published last week, Martin Bright, former political editor of the New Statesman and founder of youth employment charity The Creative Society, argues that our main political parties are ‘bullying’ young people into work. With recent announcements...


In a Guardian article published last week, Martin Bright, former political editor of the New Statesman and founder of youth employment charity The Creative Society, argues that our main political parties are ‘bullying’ young people into work. With recent announcements promising to cap benefits for young job seekers, alongside student debt, soaring house prices and unpaid work, Bright writes that prospects for young people – particularly for those possessing low education and skills – are increasingly bleak.

To a certain extent, Bright is correct. Instead of outwardly focusing on delivering secure, well-paid jobs that provide opportunities for skill development and career progression, political parties across the board are adopting a tougher stance against young benefit claimants. On one side, Labour have pledged to replace benefits for the long-term unemployed with a youth training allowance, whereas the Conservatives aim to cut benefits for young jobseekers after six months, making unpaid community work compulsory.

An ongoing issue is the long-term value of apprenticeships, which provide young people with the skills and employment opportunities that can offer a potential remedy to the youth unemployment problem outlined by Bright. Where Britain once provided young workers with quality, paid professional experience and valuable on-the-job skills, we now focus too narrowly on quantity of apprenticeships over quality.

Ambitious government targets to raise the number of apprenticeships by 60 per cent, combined with outsourcing to private training companies and inadequate engagement with employers have led to a watering-down of the apprenticeship model. Unlike apprenticeships of old, many current schemes are simply 12-week training courses that pay little and do not guarantee employment at the end.

When compared with countries like Germany and Norway, where apprenticeships typically last three years, include weekly classroom teaching and thorough assessment, Britain’s apprenticeships pale in significance. While the former provide graduate-level equivalent training (even for ‘low-grade’ social care courses like nursery nursing), few apprenticeship schemes under the current British government provide training above ‘level two’ – roughly the equivalent of GCSE exams. IPPR’s recent report The Condition of Britain has also highlighted the growing number of young people receiving low value training with limited labour market currency.

Reasons to be cheerful

However, when it comes to policies for upskilling our young people, it’s not all doom and gloom. Recent announcements by Labour and the Liberal Democrats hope to remedy the mounting issue of skills polarisation by providing school leavers who choose not to (or cannot) pursue university education with more chances to gain quality vocational experience. If this is done well, the future for young people might not be quite as desolate as Bright suggests.

In particular, ongoing Fabian Society research examining policy crossover between Labour and the Liberal Democrats unveils deep political commitment to tackling youth (un)employment. While cuts to certain benefits have been presented by parties as inevitable in the current economic climate, plans to modify and improve advanced apprenticeships may provide the solution that many young, low-skilled people have been looking for.

Crucially, both Labour and the Lib Dems aim to tackle concerns with apprenticeship quality, turning attention away from target-based approaches and towards creating schemes that drive up skills, productivity and wages.

Their suggestions are two-fold. The first involves a stronger focus on the qualifications participants obtain. This would be achieved by ensuring that apprentices receive skills and qualifications that are transferable, and that regular assessments are closely monitored by external bodies who track participants’ progress.

The second involves establishing closer partnerships between business, unions, vocational training providers and Further Education colleges. Both political parties will give businesses more control over the funding and design of apprenticeships in exchanges for increases in the quality of training, and will ensure that all large firms that win a major contract from government must commit to providing apprenticeships for high-skilled jobs. Labour also goes a step further, in proposing to introduce a civil-service fast-track scheme that hires non-graduates.

However, as always with big political promises, there are a number of caveats that should be borne in mind. Most important in this instance is the issue of feasibility. British governments have endlessly sought to emulate the ‘German model’ of apprenticeships, but each time with limited success. Rather than closing existing skills gaps, ill-conceived and poorly managed apprenticeship schemes have arguably contributed to their expansion.

To achieve their ambitious goals, Labour and the Lib Dems must examine past failures and work to address the practical difficulties that have plagued British apprenticeships until today. Plans to establish a better-integrated system and to foster closer collaboration between employers, unions, private bodies and the government are certainly a decisive step.

Rebecca Staddon

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