Degrees of error
As students digest their A-level results, they should consider apprenticeships, says MP Frank Field
In the rush to HE, many overlook apprenticeships, says one MP
IT SURELY cannot be long before some bright spark takes the government and schools to court under the Trade Descriptions Act. Many sixth formers all over the country are mis-sold a graduate career, when the right advice, in terms of pay and happiness, is to take an apprenticeship.
There is already a growing unease among young graduates who feel they have been ripped off. Successive generations of young people have been sold a place at university on the basis of it being a first, necessary step towards a successful career. Alternative routes have been dismissed as non-starters.
Yet graduates’ median hourly pay fell last year. Over the past four years, the employment rate among graduates has crept up by only one percentage point. Their unease appears to be fully justified.
This mis-selling scandal is so strongly embedded that it is countering any appetite across the country for alternative routes into jobs that pay decent wages and offer healthy prospects for progression.
One particularly attractive route is the one offered by apprenticeships.
Two experiences from Birkenhead have shaped my own views on this topic. The first is the great sense of achievement I have seen young people gain upon being offered an apprenticeship at the Cammell Laird shipyard, as a first step towards a skilled occupation that can set them up for life.
On the other hand, there is also the dismay I pick up from other young people who have been shoehorned into university, come out saddled with debt, and then cannot find themselves a decent job.
Clearly the debate on how best to equip young people with the skills they need to earn a living in the modern economy should be moving fast up the political agenda – or, at least, it would if the country thought through a strategy to prevent any skills shortages emerging in the post-brexit labour market, once we have introduced a system of border controls.
For the past two years, I have been trying to build up a comprehensive bank of information on the differing fortunes of graduates and apprentices, to help guide public policy on this crucial topic. My view – based on the information that is now available – is that apprenticeships should be placed in the driving seat of a post-brexit skills strategy, both to advance a sizeable number of young people’s living standards, as well as to maintain the overall health of the economy. Here’s why.
Lower pay for graduates
Two years ago, on the back of my request, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that more than a quarter of graduates were earning lower wages than non-graduate employees who have completed an apprenticeship. They also showed that the lowest earning 40 per cent of graduates were more likely to be working in part-time roles than non-graduates with an apprenticeship.
More recently, the ONS provided fresh data which, we hope, will serve as a reminder to would-be students and their parents, that any old degree is not necessarily the most preferable option for their career.
They found that the proportion of graduates earning lower gross hourly pay than apprentices was four percentage points higher in 2016 (29 per cent) than in 2005 (25 per cent). Moreover, the proportion of graduates with only an undergraduate degree earning a lower gross hourly wage than apprentices increased by six percentage points in 2016; from 26 per cent to 32 per cent.
There’s more. The employment rate among people who have completed an apprenticeship gained four percentage points on that among graduates between 2012 and 2016; the gap narrowed from six percentage points to two. In addition, while graduates’ median hourly pay fell last year, apprentices’ median hourly pay increased by 3.7 per cent.
These data demonstrate how a large number of students have been sold a pup. They prove
the need for a serious rethink when it comes to the careers advice given to 16- to 17 year-olds. The idea that getting any old degree is what matters above all else needs to be challenged. On current trends, the mis-selling of graduate careers has to be put on a par with the big financial mis-selling scandals if we are thinking of the impact on income.
Yet the landscape looks barren. An apprenticeship levy has been introduced, but nobody seems to know exactly how much it has raised, or how many apprenticeships have been created from it. Likewise there is an acknowledgement from ministers of the need for a national house-building and infrastructure programme, yet no specific plan has been devised for training up our young people to help initiate those programmes and then bring them to a successful completion.
Again, there has been lots of ambition when it comes to apprenticeships, but precious little has been delivered either for the country as a whole or for young people in particular who are trying to forge a career.
Now is the time to expand on a mega scale a series of boutique apprenticeship schemes that can deliver the workforce that employers will be looking to hire in post-brexit Britain. Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead and chair of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee. He tweets at @ frankfieldteam (This article was co-written by Andrew Forsey)