The number of people starting Government-backed apprenticeship schemes fell by almost 70,000 last year to the lowest number since the initiative was launched.
Figures slipped out by the Department of Business show that in the year to April 440,000 people began apprenticeships – down from 510,000 the year before.
In particular the number of 19 to 24-year-olds starting an apprenticeship fell by more than 6,000 – despite generous incentives to employers to take part. The fall will embarrass ministers as the initiative has been a key part of Government strategy to reduce youth unemployment and promote on-the-job skills.
Those taking part in the scheme, which has been supported by many leading businesses, work four days a week and generally spend the fifth studying towards a relevant qualification in the area where they are working.
Small and medium-size businesses can get grants of £1,500 for each apprentice they take on even if they only pay them the minimum wage. But separate Government research, also published just before the Parliamentary recess, suggests some employers are not even paying apprentices this.
It found across all apprenticeships 15 per cent are paid below the appropriate national minimum wage while younger apprentices are more likely to be earning less.
The research shows that 93 per cent of those aged 25 or older already worked for their employer before starting their apprenticeship. This suggests many existing training programmes for people already in work are simply being rebadged. The steepest rise in the number of new apprentices came in older age categories – despite Government claims that the focus of the scheme is to reduce youth unemployment.
A study by the Department of Business showed that of those taking part in the scheme 21 per cent receive no formal academic training as part of their apprenticeship.
Labour said the full range of information on the way in which apprenticeships were working in practice gave significant cause for concern.
“To grow the number of high-skilled, better-paid jobs we need more apprenticeship opportunities – particularly for our young people,” said Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna. “But despite David Cameron’s claims, we are seeing the numbers of apprenticeships falling and worryingly there’s been a significant drop in apprenticeship starts for young people.
“We’ve seen a huge spike in over-60s taking apprenticeships while the number of young people taking apprenticeships has fallen.”
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