Between 2010 and 2015, apprenticeship starts numbers rose sharply, to 2.4 million in 2015. The Government has also committed to creating 3 million additional apprenticeship starts by 2020 and recently highlighted the increasing number of people aged under 19 years taking up apprenticeships since August 2015. However, recent analysis by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission points to some worrying findings about apprenticeships for young people and success rates in apprenticeships.

The Commission recently published its submission to the Apprenticeships Inquiry by the sub-committee on Education, Skills and the Economy. In its response the Commission, highlighted three issues:

  • Apprenticeship starts are rising sluggishly among young people aged under 25. The headline numbers boasting record numbers of starts are undermined by falling success rates across all ages and levels.
  • The majority of apprenticeship starts are not a step up from young people’s last level of study. Many apprentices take on an apprenticeship at a level they are already qualified at.
  • Many young apprentices’ starts are in sectors where pay and progression prospects are more limited.

Sluggish starts among the youngest

“Young people, especially over the last five years, have not seen the phenomenal growth in apprenticeship opportunities that the headline numbers might imply. Overall growth in apprenticeship starts has been driven by large increases in participation by over-25s.”

As the Commission explains, analysis of publicly available statistics on apprenticeships reveal that the overall 2.4 million apprenticeship starts created under the Coalition Government did not trickle down in proportional amounts to the youngest apprentices.

The growth in the number of apprenticeships since 2009/10 has indeed been largely driven by an increase in the number of starts by people aged 25 and over. In 2014/15, apprentices over 25 made up 43% of all starts and were the largest group of starters for the fifth year in a row.

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Starts for those aged under 19 as a proportion of all starts almost halved between 2009/10 and 2014/15 – going from 42% to 25% of all starts. Overall, those under 25 went from representing 82% of all starts in 2009/10 to 57% of them in 2014/15.

In its submission, the Commission predicted that:

“Taking the average growth over the last three years and projecting it forward, the suggestion is that adult apprenticeship starts will continue to increase and numbers starting youth apprenticeships will stagnate or decline.”

Success rates and caveats

The Commission also highlighted two points often ignored in discussions on apprenticeship numbers:

  • The fact that apprenticeship starts do not measure successfully completed apprenticeshipssuccess rates statistics do.
  • The fact that apprenticeships starts are a count of how many different apprenticeships are started – not of how many different people start an apprenticeship. For this reason, apprenticeship start figures can potentially count individuals who start several different apprenticeships several times.

The Commission highlighted falling success rates: one in three apprentices do not complete their apprenticeship – and rates have been falling since 2010/11.

The latest data on national success rates show that in 2013/14 only 69% of apprenticeships were successfully completed. In other words the recent increase in apprenticeship starts has happened at the same time as a fall in success rates.

Interestingly, despite being the largest starter group, over 25 year olds also saw the worst success rates in 2013/14 as well as the sharpest fall, from 79% success in 2010/11 to less than 67% in 2013/14.

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No up-skilling

For most apprentices under 25, apprenticeships may not constitute a step up in terms of qualifications: 68% of A-level age apprentices started an apprenticeship at Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) rather than Level 3 (A-level equivalent).

Likewise, 97% of apprentices in the degree-age group started apprenticeships at a level that was below higher education level (Level 4). The Commission argued that “this is important because it signals what the apprenticeship route can offer in comparison to university.”

Higher apprenticeships (Level 4 and above) have the smallest take-up of all (4% of all starts in 2014/15). Their number is increasing but at a faster pace among those over 25 than among younger apprentices.

Apprenticeships in low-pay sectors

The Commission pointed out that “many of the most popular apprenticeship frameworks – especially for the under-19 group – are those with the lowest earning potential.”

The bulk of apprenticeship starts (73%) were concentrated in three sectors in 2014/15: Business, Administration and Law; Health, Public Service and Care; and Retail and Commercial Enterprises. Each of these contain apprenticeship frameworks in industries that were recently identified as lower-paying (hairdressing, children’s care, construction, business and engineering).

A gender divide has also operated in apprenticeship take-up and the concentration of women in those low-pay sectors. In 2014/15, women were the majority of apprentices in Health, Public Services and Care; in Education and Training; and in Retail and Commercial Enterprise. These sectors are skewed towards lower wages.

Recommendations and way forward

The Commission’s concerns about limited social mobility for young apprentices echo previous warnings from other commentators. For instance, Alison Wolf, author of the influential Review of Vocational Education, believes that the Government’s 3 million apprenticeship target will not be enough to achieve quality in apprenticeship training. Online, opinion columns for ‘quality, not quantity’ are legion and come from across industries – from the British Chambers of Commerce to the Institution of Engineering and Technology – and from think tanks like the New Policy Institute.

The Government has responded to some of these concerns by replacing the much-criticised apprenticeship frameworks with newly drafted apprenticeship standards. Likewise, it will create an Institute for Apprenticeships whose role will be to ensure the quality of apprenticeship training. In a bid to tackle low taking-up by the youngest, the Government is communicating with young people and their parents about apprenticeships and the prospects they offer.

More issues remain to be tackled regarding the lack of diversity among apprentices, the gender divide and concentration of apprentices within a few sectors while others have high densities of hard-to-fill vacancies. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has time and again highlighted the existence of a UK skills gap at the intermediate level compared to other OECD countries. In that sense, more efforts are needed to encourage more young apprentices to take-up and complete high quality intermediate and higher level apprenticeships.

Picture credit: College of DuPage Engineering Club Preps for NASA Robotics Mining Competition 2015, by COD Newsroom, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)