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
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