The col­lapse of vo­ca­tional train­ing leads to fears of a fu­ture skills gap

The num­ber of young peo­ple on ap­pren­tice­ships has fallen by 73pc since last year, re­ports Alan Tovey

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business -

Re­sults for A-level and GCSEs have dom­i­nated the head­lines, with the Gov­ern­ment even­tu­ally mak­ing a U-turn on marks be­ing based on pre­dicted grades.

While the fu­tures of those leav­ing school to pur­sue fur­ther aca­demic qual­i­fi­ca­tions have been in the spot­light, there’s been a longer­run­ning but largely un­no­ticed col­lapse in vo­ca­tional train­ing.

In the year to the end of July, just 34,960 ap­pren­tice­ships were started. This is a drop of 52pc on the same point a year ago, ac­cord­ing to Depart­ment for Ed­u­ca­tion data. Ex­perts fear the de­cline will only worsen in the com­ing months as young­sters leave school and start their work­ing lives in an econ­omy ham­mered by Covid-19.

Hav­ing spent years pro­mot­ing the ben­e­fits of “learn while you earn” vo­ca­tional train­ing, the Gov­ern­ment seems to have lost fo­cus on what was once a flag­ship pol­icy.

“The bot­tom’s drop­ping out of the sys­tem: it’s not just the fall in the num­ber of peo­ple start­ing ap­pren­tice­ships but the type of starts we are see­ing,” warns Si­mon Ash­worth, chief pol­icy of­fi­cer at the As­so­ci­a­tion of Em­ploy­ment and Learn­ing Providers, the body that helps pro­vide ap­pren­tice­ship train­ing.

“The ap­pren­tice­ship starts we are see­ing are typ­i­cally older peo­ple and at the higher lev­els, those who al­ready have jobs and are be­ing up­skilled. We are see­ing a col­lapse in ap­pren­tice­ships for young peo­ple who are new hires, those start­ing their first jobs.”

The data bear out his warn­ing. In the year to July, just 2,840 un­der-19s started ap­pren­tice­ships, a fall of 73pc. For those be­tween 19 and 25, the drop was 56pc to 9,340, while for over-25s the fall was 45pc.

The worry is that com­pa­nies who still have staff on fur­lough and face un­cer­tain de­mand are re­luc­tant to take on staff who can­not con­trib­ute fully while they are learn­ing the job.

“We’re not re­cruit­ing ap­pren­tices this year,” says Mandy Rid­yard, fi­nance di­rec­tor and owner of Pro­du­max, a Bolton-based aerospace parts man­u­fac­turer that has 85 staff. “About 20pc of our work­force are ap­pren­tices, but we’ve got to pro­tect the roles we have … We are not go­ing to re­cruit be­cause we can­not com­mit and give them 100pc,” she says.

Un­der the new ap­pren­tice­ship stan­dards, most trainees only get a qual­i­fi­ca­tion at the end of a mul­ti­year course. “Univer­sity can be dis­rupted but it’s still there,” Rid­yard says. “Imag­ine be­ing an ap­pren­tice a year into a pro­gramme and be­ing made re­dun­dant, you’ll get noth­ing and have to start again, as well as hav­ing to find some­one else to take you on.”

Re­search by MakeUK re­vealed that two thirds of man­u­fac­tur­ers have put some or all of their wider train­ing on hold due to Covid-19. A sim­i­lar sur­vey by skills train­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion Eng­i­nu­ity found that 45pc of ap­pren­tices in com­pa­nies it works with had been fur­loughed.

The knock-on im­pact on the coun­try of ap­pren­tice­ships fall­ing by the way­side is a worry for many busi­nesses. Peter Bowes, di­rec­tor of Bridg­man, a Hartle­pool com­pany that makes high per­for­mance doors, started his ca­reer as an ap­pren­tice.

“With­out the skills and life lessons vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion gave me I would not be where I am,” he says. Some 63pc of Bridg­man’s 70-strong work­force is aged over 50 and Bowes says the business ac­tively backs ap­pren­tices to head off the pos­si­bil­ity of a fu­ture skills gap.

“We’re try­ing to take on ap­pren­tices but the un­cer­tainty is def­i­nitely putting others off,” he says. “They are strug­gling to jus­tify in­vest­ing in train­ing when they can’t get the ex­ist­ing team back. That’s cre­at­ing the risk of a mas­sive skills vac­uum.”

It’s un­fair to say the Gov­ern­ment isn’t try­ing to head off prob­lems. In July Rishi Su­nak, the Chan­cel­lor, an­nounced plans for a six-month scheme of­fer­ing a £2,000 in­cen­tive for com­pa­nies to take on ap­pren­tices aged un­der 25, on top of an ex­ist­ing £1,000 grant for those aged 16 to 18.

While wel­come, the of­fer may be in­suf­fi­cient to drive com­pa­nies to up their ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grammes.

“A three or four-year man­u­fac­tur­ing ap­pren­tice­ship can cost a com­pany £80,000,” says Ver­ity Davidge, MakeUK’s di­rec­tor of cen­tral pol­icy and skills. “A few thou­sand isn’t go­ing to move the nee­dle for com­pa­nies who are think­ing about re­dun­dan­cies.”

AELP’s Ash­worth agrees. “We are hear­ing of a lack of ap­petite. We think it needs to cover half the cost of an ap­pren­tice’s wages be­fore it will sig­nif­i­cantly stick.”

Business isn’t just ask­ing for free money to main­tain vo­ca­tional train­ing. Com­pa­nies with a wage bills of £3m or more pay 0.5pc of their an­nual staff cost into the Ap­pren­tice­ship Levy, but it comes with strict con­trols on how it can be spent. It can only be used for train­ing and not to sup­port wages or other costs such as travel.

“Com­pa­nies be­ing able to spend their levy con­tri­bu­tions on ap­pren­tice wages would be a quick win,” says Davidge.

Ann Wat­son, of en­gi­neer­ing skills firm Eng­i­nu­ity, calls for all op­tions to be ex­am­ined to head off a brew­ing cri­sis in ap­pren­tice­ships and fu­ture skills gap caused by “a gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple leav­ing ed­u­ca­tion and find­ing they have nowhere to go”.

In the year to July 2020, only 2,840 un­der-19s started ap­pren­tice­ships

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