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What’s Going On with Apprenticeships?


Everything suddenly seems to have become a bit murky – what’s going on with apprenticeships and when did this happen?

Over the last few years apprenticeships have really been in the spotlight. On the whole this has been very positive. There has been a real focus on promoting the value of apprenticeships both to young people as a route into work and to employers as a good way to develop the skilled workforce that they need to make their business a success.

Just in the last week or so we have seen headlines including Conservative MPs calling for those women who will suffer due to the pension age increase to take up apprenticeships, proudly telling us that in 2014/15 12% of apprenticeship starts were aged over 45, and the news that as many as 63% of firms are looking at rebranding their existing training schemes so that they fall under the apprenticeship levy.

Two things have occurred over the last 12 months which may be having and continue to have a significant impact on the value of apprenticeships, in particular to the very people that they are supposed to help – young people. These are the apprenticeship levy, a hypothecated tax on all businesses with a salary bill of £3 million or more a year, and the move from apprenticeship frameworks with a mandatory qualification to standards that have no mandatory qualification attached to them.

For clarity, everything in this article should be preceded with the statement that there are many exceptional apprenticeship programmes in existence. These provide a wonderful source of training and development for apprentices and create real long-term career opportunities for them.

Not all apprenticeships include a nationally recognised qualification

However, one of the biggest problems with the information available to young people and their parents concerning apprenticeships is that it is frankly inaccurate. Many websites still state that by undertaking an apprenticeship you will gain a ‘nationally recognised qualification’ when in actual fact this should say that you ‘may’ gain a qualification – it depends on whether the employer deems this necessary.

Now, there will be some people who will argue that having a qualification is not important or necessary to the job – fine – but the point is not this, the point is that the message is confusing and this means that people will enter into an apprenticeship agreement not fully aware of what they are agreeing to.

What a shame that it seems that just as we hit the point where people were becoming more positive about apprenticeships that the waters have been muddied a bit with misinformation which really can be quite unhelpful to young people trying to make important careers decisions and to those who are trying to advise them.

Just as an example – let’s have some proper data – not just apprenticeship starts but the number of those who complete successfully – this is standard practice in schools and FE colleges and whilst this can be found if you know where to look, this isn’t the sort of information that is readily available to the public and presented in an easy to digest way.

Headline grabbers

We live in the age of online news – great – except that people often read no further than the headline – so when you write one such as ‘Apprentices earn more than graduates’ that’s the sound bite that young people get – rather than an understanding that those who do a higher level apprenticeship, on average, earn more than a graduate from a non-Russell Group university. Only 5% of all apprenticeships were at this level in 2015/16 whereas 60% were at intermediate level.

The Apprenticeship levy

If the CBI report is correct and the levy is “causing businesses to rethink their approach to training: many will use the levy to invest in upskilling their workforce, with two-thirds (63%) planning to reconfigure their existing training into apprenticeships” there are potentially some significant things that young people will need to be aware of.

The levy may not create increased opportunities for young people to enter the workforce as an apprentice, if indeed firms rebrand their training for existing staff. Equally, employers might cut back on graduate training programmes, which of course has an impact on young people who are going through the university route – a survey in 2016 by the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that whilst the apprenticeships on offer in engineering, retail and construction companies rose by 13%, the number of graduate vacancies fell by 14% in engineering, 16% in retail and 11% in construction.

Just to be clear (again) Some apprenticeships are absolutely fabulous and should you see them, grab the chance with both hands – but make sure that you have a clear understanding of your options. To start you off here are some facts:

  • 509,400 people started an apprenticeship in 2015/16
  • 44% of these were aged over 25
  • 30% were aged 19 – 24
  • 26% were under 19 years’ old
  • 291,330 of these apprenticeships were at intermediate level
  • 190,870 were at advanced level
  • 27,160 were at higher level
  • 71% of these apprenticeships were in three sectors – business, admin and law, health, public services and care, and retail and commercial services.


About Lynette Daly

Lynette is the publishing editor of Moving On magazine. Moving On is devoted to helping young people make good choices for their future – education, qualifications and careers. Moving On really wants to motivate you! Our articles cover a range of topics to inspire and give ideas. Our magazines are delivered free to all schools, colleges and sixth forms in England and is also available online.

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