This week, the Government announced it would recruit another 200,000 apprentices as part of new targets to transform the public sector.
The reform aims to create thousands of “quality opportunities” in the public sector, giving more people the chance to launch or develop a career in the NHS, police forces or working in vital local government services.
It’s a positive figure for young people hoping to train in their chosen career without the fees expected of universities. But creating more positions sadly doesn’t solve the underlying problems already faced by the thousands of young people struggling to get by.
This means that, unless a young person has parents who can support them, or is able to rely on the intensely complex and uncooperative benefits system, they simply cannot afford to do an apprenticeship.
Classified neither as a worker nor a student, apprentices fall through the gaps in the social safety net. Not being workers, they are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage, and, not being students, they cannot access student loans, discounted travel, or student bank accounts.
Their parents also lose their child benefit and tax credits because an apprentice, despite attending classes and studying towards a vocational qualification, is no longer considered to be in education.
Facing such a system, it is little wonder that young people from low-income families appear reluctant to sign up, and news that disadvantaged young people are underrepresented in the government’s £2bn-a-year apprenticeship scheme should not come as a surprise to anyone.
According to new figures from the government’s Social Mobility Commission (SMC), just 10 per cent of apprenticeships are taken by young people on free school meals, a demographic that makes up 13 per cent of schoolchildren.
The obvious pitfalls of the scheme were pointed out by the NUS in a 2015 report, which claim “this generation is being systematically shut out from vocational education because of financial constraints at almost every stage”.
Condemning the apprenticeship wage as “exploitative”, the NUS advocated that apprentices be entitled to the National Minimum Wage.
Although the government raised the apprenticeship wage by 20 per cent a few months later from £2.73 to £3.40, it is simply not enough to enable disadvantaged youngsters to join the scheme.
In response to the latest figures, Alan Milburn, Chair of the SMC, has urged the government to prevent a “class gap” and “step in to create a more level playing field”.
Although Milburn does not go into specifics, it seems clear that the best way to ensure equal access to the scheme is to make apprentices eligible for the National Minimum Wage.
It is true that apprentices are usually less skilled than full employees, but the minimum wage is there to ensure that, regardless of skill level, every person has the basics with which to live.
If the government wants to ensure that anyone, whatever their background, can do an apprenticeship, then apprentices must be able to support themselves.
The key purpose of apprenticeships is to offer a non-academic route into work, requiring fewer GCSEs than most other paths. The irony is that it is precisely those who are most in need of an apprenticeship who are least likely to have someone to subsidise their living costs.
A 2016 Department of Education report found that 63 per cent of disadvantaged students failed to acquire five good GCSEs, and placing a possible means for them to find employment beyond their financial reach is farcical.
It is true that the government cannot afford to underwrite the National Minimum Wage for all apprentices, and businesses will be less likely to hire apprentices if they have to pay them more.
But if the aim of the scheme is to aid social mobility, then the government should compromise by offering fewer but sufficiently paid opportunities.
Deficient apprenticeship wages do not, of course, exist in a vacuum. It is an issue inexorably tied up with zero-hour contracts, the denial of the living wage to under-25s, government-sanctioned unpaid traineeships, and unpaid internships.
In all walks of life, experience is increasingly considered an adequate reward for work. But it is not and never will be.
Experience does not pay the rent or keep the lights on. It does not keep the fridge stocked or pay the train fare. When you are earning just £3.40 an hour, experience does not cover the difference between your income and your outgoings.
Theresa May claims she wants to make the UK a “great meritocracy”. If she’s truly honest about this ambition, she needs to make apprenticeships feasible for all.
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