'Mad' apprenticeship targets have consigned a generation to low-skill, low-paid duties

Exclusive: Ministers aim to create three million apprenticeships by 2020

Hundreds of thousands of young people are being encouraged into low-skill, low-pay, on-the-job training schemes to meet ministers’ “mad” target of creating three million apprenticeships by 2020, new figures reveal.

The research shows that 60 per cent of all new apprentices are now studying for qualifications worth no more than five GCSE passes. In contrast, less than 3 per cent of new apprenticeships were at the higher level – equivalent to a foundation degree.

So far this year, there have been only 220 new science and maths apprenticeships created at any level, while engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships make up fewer than one in five of the new jobs.

Many of the roles being offered on the Government’s website appear to be little more than traditional school-leaver jobs in clerical, catering and retail work “rebranded” as apprenticeships. There are now apprenticeships in street cleaning, warehouse labouring and shop work.

This allows employers to pay a new 18-year-old worker just £2.73 an hour compared with the national minimum wage for that age range of £5.13. While employers are obliged to pay those staff for the one day a week they spend in academic training, this is more than made up for by the government grants available for taking on apprentices.

Business groups and academic experts warned that ministers risked “devaluing” the apprenticeship brand in their efforts to hit an artificial political target.

They pointed out that there were only two million 16- to 18-year-olds in the country, many of whom were still at school – making it hard to achieve the Government’s aim even if it were desirable to do so.

“It is a mad and artificial political target which risks undermining the reputation of apprenticeships,” said Professor Alison Wolf, who chaired a Government review into vocational education in 2011.

“What the Government should be doing is concentrating on those high-value apprenticeships which teach vocational skills in manufacturing and engineering which historically Britain has been bad at fostering. The danger is that money and resources is put into hitting a meaningless numerical target.”

The latest government figures analysed by the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that between August 2014 and January this year only 7,500 degree-level apprenticeships were started. There were 92,700 “advanced” apprenticeships started – equivalent to two A-level passes – while the majority, 148,300, were at a so-called “intermediate” level which is the equivalent of five GCSE passes.

“The political narrative and the reality of what is happening in apprenticeships are quite far apart from one another,” said Naomi Weir, the group’s acting director.

“The political narrative is about high-level, technical, graduate-equivalent apprenticeships whereas the reality is that there are only a few thousand of across the whole apprenticeship system.

“That is not a viable alternative to university. It could be but there needs to be a lot of effort to get us into a position of having a high-level technical system that we need to run alongside higher education.”

The Government recently announced it was consulting on a new employers’ levy to help pay for apprenticeships as well as setting up new “Trailblazer” schemes where employers work to set their own standards.

There are now over 140 of these groups in specific industries involving more than 1,200 employers with 187 standards published of which 57 are Higher and Degree Apprenticeships.

But Neil Carberry, director of employment and skills at the Confederation of British Industry, warned that much more needed to be done.

“It is progress on quality that is required as well as progress on quantity,” he said.

“We don’t want the Government to fall into the classic trap of confusing qualifications with competencies in the workplace that employers need and value. We want lots and lots of apprenticeships but it will be a self-defeating programme if they are not rooted in great careers.”

Labour’s shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna said it was “scandalous” that out of more than 250,000 apprenticeships in 2013-14, just 140 were in science and maths.

“Britain has a dire shortage of STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] skills, and this demonstrates that ministers are not addressing this problem,” he said.

Graham Stuart, a Conservative MP and former chairman of the Education Select Committee who examined the apprenticeship programme last year, added that while it was acceptable for apprentices to be paid less in the short term the Government must ensure that in the long term those who took part in the schemes earned more.

“I don’t have a problem with young people earning less while they are doing an apprenticeship because the quid pro quo is that they will earn more when they have  completed it.

“It is deferred gratification for solid returns thereafter. But we need to be monitoring that carefully and if some schemes are not achieving that – then we need to remove them from the programme.”

But a spokesman for the Department for Business defended the Government’s target. “Our employer-led reforms will continue to make sure apprenticeships provide the skills needed to grow our economy, whether in science, business or engineering.

“Engineering and manufacturing is the third-most popular subject for an apprenticeship, and the Trailblazer programme gives young people the chance to ply their trade in sectors as diverse as fashion, banking, law and nuclear fusion.”

Apprentices in the UK

Apprentice Shop Assistant

Weekly wage: £109.20  (40 hours per week)

Role includes: Greeting customers who enter the shop, stocking shelves with merchandise, keeping the store tidy and clean.

Duration: 12 months

Apprentice Administration Assistant

Weekly wage: £101.01  (37 hours per week)

Role includes: Answering the telephone, filing, photocopying, processing post.

Duration: 12 months

Apprentice Telesales Executive

Weekly wage: £118.13  (33 hours per week)

Role involves: uploading leads, learning sales techniques, learning how to build good customer rapport

Apprenticeship duration: 12 months

Apprentice Warehouse Assistant

Weekly wage: £150.00  (40 hours a week) 

Role involves: Picking and packing orders, helping to replenish shelves for packing, helping with ‘Goods in’.

Duration: 15 months

Comments