Opinion

Apprenticeship decline could spell extinction for university alternative

7 min read

29 January 2018

The freefall in the number of new apprentices is one of the most depressing statistics I have read in a long time.

I nearly choked on my bacon sarnie the other morning when I read about the apprenticeship decline, which revealed the amount of starting apprenticeships dropped to 114,000 between August and October last year. That’s down from 155,700 for the same period in 2016.

Of course, it wasn’t looking good for this latest set of numbers as it followed the massive 59 per cent drop in the previous three months, which unfortunately came after the launch of the Apprenticeship Levy.

If we dial things back a few years to when George Osborne and David Cameron declared the government would help create three million new apprenticeships, I honestly thought the tide had started to turn.

Coming on the back of Tony Blair’s failed “education, education, education” mantra and a “university at all costs” teaching system, it seemed that someone, somewhere in the halls of power had remembered how important apprenticeships are to the country.

After all, work, in most of its many forms, is a practical thing. Whether it’s installing a heating system, building a bridge or preparing a set of accounts, most jobs involve tasks that relate to that vocation that often can’t be learned in the classroom.

Having young people train in a business, in a structured and assessed way, is a common sense route to creating a skilled workforce for this country. It’s also a great way to solve youth unemployment, social issues…I could go on. And, to be fair, I usually do, because apprenticeships are vital to our future prosperity.


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That’s why, after all my conversations with government over recent years, pushing the need to raise the value and perception of vocational training, I was initially in favour of the Apprenticeship Levy.

So many companies have failed to invest in training that it seemed like the only way to get their attention and to focus their minds on training young people was to hit them in the pocket.

The government had already done it with pensions making putting a few quid into a pot a statutory obligation for those without one, so why not do the same thing with training.

Unfortunately, while the man in the street will begrudgingly accept that a bit of their take home pay is now being put in a pension, big businesses are a lot more begrudging, thus we’re seeing an apprenticeship decline.

As a result, they have squirmed out of their responsibility to apprenticeships by using their budgets to train existing staff or are writing it off as a tax.

The worst impact of the Apprenticeship Levy has been on those businesses it was designed to help – SMEs.

In simple terms, the money put in by the big firms, through their 0.5 per cent contribution from their £3m plus wage bills, can be accessed to help small businesses take on apprentices they couldn’t afford.

On the face of it, that makes sense, but it hasn’t worked out that way.  The paperwork is too much for some small companies while some of those who already had schemes in place have scrapped them due to the difficulty of making them compliant with the Levy structure.


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It feels like the government has promised a slap-up five-course meal, got confused in the kitchen and come out with a single slice of toast that’s soggy and not at all appetising.

It’s a bit of a mess and unless big companies fulfil their apprentice obligations and small firms can access the funds in a more straightforward way, the apprenticeship decline spells a danger of dying out.

Simplifying the system and not allowing big companies to avoid their responsibilities, will help rescue the apprenticeship decline and prevent it from the waste bin of history.

People like myself have campaigned tirelessly to raise the standing of apprenticeships and the constant stream of young people applying to companies like Pimlico Plumbers proves that kids see the value in them. 

But, as Alice Thompson so rightly wrote in The Times last week, there is a snobbery around apprenticeships, mainly among some parents and the establishment, which see them as a step down from a university education.

Tell that to one of my £100,000-a-year apprenticeship-trained plumbers!

But these guys and girls will become an endangered species if we’re not careful, which will not only be exceptionally sad, but the apprenticeship decline will also be extremely damaging to the economy.


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