De­grees of er­ror

As stu­dents di­gest their A-level re­sults, they should con­sider ap­pren­tice­ships, says MP Frank Field

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - CONTENTS -

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)

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