It’s time to address the apprenticeships mismatch for young people

By David Sims, NFER Research Director

Monday 14 February 2022

This article was first published in FE Week’s National Apprenticeship Week 2022 supplement on Monday 14 February 2022.

There is a growing mismatch between the Government’s policy commitment for apprenticeships to be a key route for post-16 study and actually delivering the numbers of apprenticeships needed to achieve this. The Government urgently needs to review the design of the current apprenticeship system to ensure that reality matches the rhetoric.

Following the recent reforms to the apprenticeship system, there has been a sharp decline in the number of apprenticeships for young people. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a further drop in apprenticeship starts, with the largest fall among smaller employers. As noted in NFER’s recent apprenticeship report, between 2015/16 and 2018/19 apprenticeship starts at level 2 and 3 declined by 23 per cent for those under the age of 19, with starts falling by another two-thirds between 2018/19 and 2020/21. Overall, apprenticeship starts for this important age group, who are beginning their careers, have halved since 2015/16. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have been particularly affected.

While early indicators do suggest apprenticeship starts for under-19s may have picked up in the autumn, it is not clear that any increase will be sustained as current incentives for employers to take on new apprentices will expire on January 31. The key question here is how likely is it that an increase in starts sufficiently redresses the decline that has happened to date?

There are several actions that should be taken to boost apprenticeships so they drive skills development and open up vital training opportunities for young people. In addition to the existing £1,000 incentive for taking on an under-19 apprentice, the Government should give immediate consideration to continuing to offer the apprenticeship employer incentive currently set at £3,000 for each new under-19 apprenticeship start. This would be a divergence from the current incentive (which is available to all age groups) but would go some way towards ensuring a sustained growth in apprenticeships. This would benefit not only the prospects of young people, but in helping to provide a more secure apprenticeship pipeline, would support the ambitions of the Government’s Skills for Jobs white paper.

The House of Lords Youth Unemployment Committee report Skills for every young person pointed out that the Government’s public sector target requiring all public sector bodies with 250 or more staff in England to employ at least 2.3 per cent of their staff as new apprentice starts is not being met. This is another area in which the Government should take action by exploring how the public sector could make a greater contribution to apprenticeship growth, especially for under 19s.

NFER’s apprenticeship report recommends that all employers should be required to advertise apprenticeship vacancies on the Find An Apprenticeship (FAA) website. Employers may currently choose whether or not to post their apprenticeship vacancies on this website. The Government should further improve access to apprenticeship opportunities by providing targeted application support to young people applying to apprenticeships from disadvantaged areas as recent apprenticeship reforms have had a disproportionate impact on apprenticeship starts from this group.

Also, the Government should re-assess how minimum English and maths requirements can be incorporated into apprenticeship training to address the issue of these requirements acting as a disincentive for some employers hiring apprentices. Recent research by NFER found a majority of apprenticeship vacancies mentioned English and maths requirements.

It should also review the misalignment of incentives within the current apprenticeship funding system, particularly supporting smaller employers. Separating and protecting the funding for under 19 apprenticeships from the main apprenticeships budget would also be beneficial. This would help to mitigate negative effects of the apprenticeship funding system which trades off apprenticeships for young people against higher apprenticeships which are typically taken by older employees. Taking this action would also help Government to see more clearly the apprenticeship investment for the under 19s, compared to older age groups, and assess the economic and social returns.