The cost of living crisis increases the need to overcome barriers to apprenticeship access

By Suzanne Straw, NFER Research Director

Monday 20 June 2022

This article was first published in FE Week on Friday June 17 2022.

Apprenticeships are a key training route to help young people enter the labour market. They also have the potential to act as a vehicle for social mobility.

However, our latest research highlights a myriad of barriers that young people – particularly those who are the most disadvantaged – face in accessing intermediate (Level 2) and advanced (Level 3) apprenticeships. As the current cost of living crisis will only amplify a number of these barriers, it is more important than ever that they are addressed effectively.

On the money

Drawing on 20 interviews with employers in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), our research highlights that apprentice wages are a significant barrier to some young people undertaking and completing apprenticeships. Even where employers pay above the minimum apprenticeship wage, they reported that this is insufficient for young people to survive on. Employers gave examples of past apprentices who had struggled financially, undertaking additional jobs in the evening and at weekends. This barrier disproportionally impacts young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are unlikely to be able to rely on families for financial support, and in some cases may be required to make an important contribution to their family’s finances.

This barrier will only be exacerbated by the current cost of living crisis. While the national minimum wage for apprentices was recently increased from £4.30 to £4.81, it remains very low and most of this increase is likely to be absorbed by current high levels of inflation. In addition, as apprenticeship wages are considerably lower than those young people can earn elsewhere, this is likely to further deter young people from considering them.

Costs of travel

There are substantial geographic differences in the availability of apprenticeships, particularly in certain sectors. For example, while it is possible to undertake a ‘Health and Social Care’ apprenticeship in most parts of England, apprenticeship opportunities in ‘Manufacturing Technologies’ are much more localised. This would mean young people seeking to work in this sector would have to reconsider their options, move to a new part of the country or travel considerable distances. Again, this is likely to prevent young people, particularly those from disadvantaged groups, from accessing these opportunities.

A longer-term view

The interviewed SMEs also highlighted that young people’s low awareness of the longer-term earning and career progression potential of apprenticeships can be a key barrier to recruitment. Some employers felt this lack of awareness can lead young people into more highly-paid low-skilled jobs rather than apprenticeships with greater prospects but which pay less in the short-term. To overcome this barrier, it is important that the long-term benefits of apprenticeships are highlighted to young people when they are considering their post-16 options.

Overcoming barriers

There are a number of actions that could be taken to support young people, particularly those who are most disadvantaged, to overcome these barriers. These include:

  1. Promoting and sharing positive apprentice role models
    Providing work experience and positive apprentice role models could encourage young people to consider apprenticeships, by highlighting the longer-term benefits of this route.
  1. Improving awareness of intermediate and advanced apprenticeships
    We also suggest that, drawing on effective practice, much could be gained from the Government reviewing and re-focusing its efforts on effective ways of raising awareness of intermediate and advanced apprenticeships and promoting positive messages to young people, parents, carers and teaching staff.
  1. A financially viable option for all young people
    The Government should also revisit the appropriate level of the minimum apprenticeship wage and extend the 16-19 bursary fund so that it can be used to fund travel costs for apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While these solutions will not fix all of the challenges faced by disadvantaged young people, they constitute a necessary and important step towards helping more of them to access and complete apprenticeships.