9 May 2015

Apprenticeships and the New Government

The General Election campaigns are out of the way and it is time to look ahead to what the Conservatives proposed in relation to work, education and skills. What will they deliver in career education, advice and guidance, and specific initiatives to support young people into sustainable employment and relevant training over the next five years? There is of course one thing that every party talked about (endlessly, it seemed, at times): apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships for young people, if any of the party manifestos were to be believed, are going to solve a heck of a lot of problems. While my PhD looks at one specific programme of apprenticeships in Scotland, what I want to talk about in this post are apprenticeships in general. There are major challenges if they are to be used as the magic elixir they have been purported to be.

There are concerns about current apprenticeship provision: the percentage of people starting apprenticeships who are already over 25 (and therefore not ‘young’), numbers starting (high) and completing (not so high) their apprenticeship, their use as a shortcut to CPD provision, the inconsistency in length. These are just a few of the issues being raised, even before I get to my specialist topic of the gender inequality present in apprenticeships. 

The Conservative manifesto promised 3 million new apprenticeship starts over the course of this parliament. Let’s tell ourselves that, over the next five years, young apprentices will be recruited (openly and fairly) then retained on consistently high-quality programmes and will later go into sustained employment. Ahem. More on this ideal world at a later date (a world that is to be part-funded by bank fines, let's hope the banks don't adopt appropriate conduct any time soon.)

Of concern however, is that the Conservative manifesto proposal, which is soon to be implemented in full, states that some of the new 18-21 apprentices will be forced onto an apprenticeship. The Conservatives are looking to put young unemployed people onto a Youth Allowance, abolishing their entitlement to Jobseekers’ Allowance:
"We will replace the Jobseeker’s Allowance for 18-21 year-olds with a Youth Allowance that will be time-limited to six months, after which young people will have to take an apprenticeship, a traineeship or do daily community work for their benefits." (Conservatives, 2015, p10)
What message does this give out about apprenticeships? Regardless of whether the numbers who reach this stage may be small, the “threat” of being made to do an apprenticeship does nothing to tackle one of the major challenges that the apprenticeship system faces. It is this: “Apprenticeships are great, just not for my child.”

A recent Demos report The Commission on Apprenticeships (March 2015) highlighted challenges in relation to parental influence on young people who might become apprentices. It found that most parents think that apprenticeships are valuable, but not for their own children” (2015, p9). Of additional concern is the surveyed parents’ opinion that “apprenticeships are more suitable for low achievers than high achievers” (2015, p9). Exploring the findings a little further, it is revealed that “parents support apprenticeships enthusiastically in general terms, but remain less convinced that they are right for their own children” (2015, p87).

The Demos research shows that 92% of the parents interviewed think apprenticeships are great but only 32% of them want their child to do one. What do they want them to do instead? They want their children to undertake an academic, higher education route into the workplace, which they perceive as having higher status than vocational apprenticeships.

There are opposing ways to look at this. One is, these parents aren’t the type of people whose child would do an apprenticeship, because they think they and their offspring are ‘too good’ for them. An alternative is to consider that these parents are talking about aspiration; university opens doors to young people that vocational training doesn’t, even if there is a stable, technical or professional job at the end of it. There has been a sustained push to raise the number of young people going into higher education for some time, with the promise that the expense will pay off long-term. The roll-out of Degree Apprenticeships and proposed Advanced Apprenticeships (Scotland), may have some impact on this, albeit likely after a period of confusion as to what the new hybrid is.

Of much concern to those of us trying to tackle inequality within apprenticeship provision is how to raise the profile, status and esteem of apprenticeships overall. We must address how they are perceived. Presenting apprenticeships as a last chance for those deemed unemployable will do nothing to help the often skewed perception of what an apprenticeship programme is, can and should be. Parents and other family members, guardians, carers and friends are major influencers of young people’s career decisions and will absorb any negative positioning of apprenticeships, increasing their lower status to higher education routes. 

How apprenticeships function within the proposed Youth Allowance welfare policy needs careful consideration, as does the language to be used in promoting it, to avoid the potentially negative impact it could have upon apprenticeships. 

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References
The Conservative Party Manifesto 2015 (2015) Conservatives: London
The Commission on Apprenticeships (2015) Demos: London. 

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