Breaking down the apprenticeship barriers

Research by Working Links, an organisation dedicated to helping the unemployed back into work, shows that the majority of employers that hire apprentices enjoy benefits to their business. But too many still have reservations about hiring young people. Mike Lee, Working Links’ director of skills and people, looks at how these can be overcome.

Youth unemployment in the UK has passed the one million mark. The papers are filled with editorials emphasising the paradox of the lack of opportunities for young people and the shortage of skilled young people to take up new opportunities. Apprenticeships are increasingly seen as an important part of the solution to the problem of rising youth unemployment, and one we are convinced can work well when employers and training providers work together to make the most of the Government’s investment in apprenticeship training.

The apprenticeships programme undoubtedly has the potential to improve our young people’s skills base, reduce youth unemployment, and provide the desired incentives for employers taking on younger, less experienced employees.

In the Working Links research, employers that had hired apprentices said they were a benefit to their business, with 80% endorsing the view that apprenticeships will help bring down youth unemployment. Young people also support apprenticeships, with 62% citing them as a route toward a stable career.

Apprenticeships can invigorate a business, with new recruits injecting new ideas and enthusiasm. So, in the current economic climate, it’s no surprise that the provision of training and career opportunities to local young people is climbing to the top of many businesses’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) agendas.

However, recent reports suggesting that apprenticeships are not being taken up by under-25s and those out of work are concerning. It’s self-evident that to optimise the value of apprenticeships in addressing the challenge presented by youth unemployment, training provision must recognise and respond to the needs of young, unemployed people.

Obstacles to apprenticeships

A key reason employers give for why apprenticeships do not succeed is that recruits often do not have the “soft skills”, such as enthusiasm or motivation, or the workplace experience needed to be a success in an on-the-job training environment. Working Links’ own research bears this out. The employers spoken to listed enthusiasm and motivation, a good attitude to learning and good social skills as the three most important attributes they looked for when recruiting young people.

Almost two-thirds (63%) of employers said that they are concerned young people don’t have the skills in place to contribute to the business from day one. Potential apprentices should be expected to be ready to start contributing straight away.

Pre-apprenticeship training

So, how can these obstacles be overcome and how can employers make apprenticeships work to their advantage and the advantage of young people? The solution may be to offer more pre-apprenticeship training to young people. This ensures that young people who have never previously held a job, can gain the employability skills they so desperately need.

Almost all (97%) of the employers surveyed think that taking part in pre-apprenticeship training would help young people benefit from an apprenticeship, and more than three-quarters believe that all young people would benefit from such training. By joining with training providers, employers can ensure apprentices join their company ready and willing to start work, lowering the risk involved in taking on an apprentice.

Planning schemes

At the same time, employers should ensure that they have a career development plan prepared for apprentices even before they begin their programme. Giving apprentices a clear sense of where their career can go will not only help motivate them to work hard and stay with the firm, it will also help employers integrate apprentices into their long-term plans.

Employers in England will be helped by a grant which is to be introduced in April, but planning for an apprenticeship can be difficult, especially for smaller businesses, which may not have the experience of using apprentices successfully. To overcome this challenge, businesses can band together across their sector. A consortium to recruit, screen, and pre-train all young people before they begin the job will save small firms costly administrative time, while, at the same time, raising the bar of professionalism for the apprentices that walk through their door.

Promoting schemes

Finally, the most important thing businesses can do to improve the quality of apprentices is to promote their schemes more widely. Only 25% of young people were advised about apprenticeships in school in comparison to 70% who received advice about university. By engaging with local schools and spreading the word, employers can increase their pool of potential candidates, allowing them to choose the best.

It is important to remember the value that apprenticeships offer to both businesses and the country as a whole. The most recent figures show that, for every £1 spent on apprenticeships by the taxpayer, £18 in value is returned to the UK economy. At the same time, research by City & Guilds has shown that creating an additional one million apprenticeship places by 2013 would give businesses a £4.3 billion boost.

Apprenticeships offer significant benefits to employers, young people and the UK economy. To make them succeed, employers should be encouraged to plan and offer training to make apprenticeships work for them.

Mike Lee is director of skills and young people at Working Links, an organisation dedicated to helping the unemployed back into work.

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