How can employers make apprenticeships work?

The headlines are full of doom and gloom for young people – youth unemployment has just hit the one million mark, hundreds of graduates compete for single job placements and employers complain that school leavers lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.

One of the Government’s flagship methods to tackle youth unemployment is apprenticeships. On paper, this response seems to have been working very well. Numbers for 2010/11 have risen by 58% compared with the full 2009/10 academic year, according to the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS). Business secretary Vince Cable recently announced plans to support 20,000 new apprenticeships in small businesses, offering those employers an incentive of up to £1,500 for taking on a young apprentice (aged 16 to 24).

But, while the number of apprenticeships is growing, a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggests that these schemes may not be going to the people who need them most. Only 37,000 of the 126,000 extra apprenticeships created last year went to people aged between 16 and 24, with a 257% rise in apprenticeships for workers aged over 25. Growth in the number of apprenticeships for 16- to 18-year-olds was just 10%, according to the report.

Huge increase in university graduates

So why aren’t employers offering school leavers the opportunity to learn a trade, and in many industries, plug a skills gap? One of the authors of the IPPR report, research fellow Tess Lanning, believes that organisations have become more and more reluctant to take on young people since the 1970s. The huge increase in the proportion of young people going to university means that there is a ready pool of graduate talent available to them, so school leavers become less attractive.

There is another factor at play here – Lanning suggests that the rise in older workers gaining access to apprenticeships is down to a need to train existing employees who would previously have qualified for Train to Gain funding but are now being offered an apprenticeship instead. “These are existing employees, not new recruits. We tend to think of an apprenticeship as learning a trade, a route into skilled work, an entry to the world of work,” she says.

The report goes on to suggest that the recent increase in the number of apprenticeships has been a drive for quantity rather than quality. The IPPR argues that the training required for the service sector (interestingly, the largest apprenticeship provider in England is the supermarket chain Morrisons) is not on a par with an apprenticeship in the highly skilled manufacturing or engineering industries. Some apprenticeships last only 12 weeks, while an engineering apprenticeship can take four years.

Talent management

Opening up an entry to work for school leavers at either 16 or 18 can pay off both in terms of providing those young people with the soft skills they will need in their working lives and by creating a “grow-your-own” approach to talent management. “When employers do take on young people, they’re often surprised by how quickly they learn, and by their enthusiasm,” says Richard Marsh, head of programme development at the NAS. “They like the fact they are growing them themselves rather than taking on someone with established working practices.” The NAS ensures that it ring-fences a number of apprenticeships each year for people in the 16- to 18-year-old age bracket, and this number increases annually.

Jacquie Swinn, HR manager at Caunton Engineering, works with local schools to spark an interest in working in engineering. The company takes on 12 or 13 year 10 students every year for work experience, and, rather than sitting them in the corner or asking them to make the tea or photocopy, they are given a full timetable of activities so that they get a real experience of what it would be like to work there. They even have to have a job interview so that Caunton can see they are committed to looking at a career in engineering. After the placement, Swinn and her team do an assessment of each student, which is used as part of the recruitment process in the following year if the students decide to apply for an apprenticeship. Applicants who have not had a work experience placement are offered a placement during their school holidays to ensure a fair recruitment process.

Katerina Rudiger, policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), thinks that better careers advice and developing relationships with local education providers, as Caunton has, would help employers overcome some of the perceived barriers to taking on young people. “Quite often, employers want someone who has experience and can get up and running immediately. Employers can get around this by giving young people an experience of the workplace as soon as possible,” she says.

Economic uncertainty

Earlier this year, a CIPD study found that nearly half of employers had not taken on an apprentice for the last three years, and while economic uncertainty was one factor, another was that many organisations believed apprenticeships to be “inappropriate for their organisation”. The CIPD is working with the NAS on new guidance for employers on the benefits of offering an apprenticeship and how to make it work for both parties. “The companies that are most successful at running apprenticeships see them as part of their workforce planning,” Rudiger adds. “You’re not just training someone for a short while; it’s a good way to tackle future skills issues.”

Some companies offer short pre-apprenticeship or qualifying schemes, where interested candidates can get a feel for the workplace and gain the basic skills required to start a full apprenticeship. The car manufacturer Nissan, for example, offers a six-week access-to-work course for unemployed learners in the North-East, who work towards a Level 2 Certificate in Preparation for Working in the Engineering and Manufacturing Industry, readying them for employment and further training either with Nissan or another company in the sector. The level of skills they gain means that, where previously 12% of unemployed people entering Nissan’s recruitment process would be successful, that figure has increased five-fold to 60%.

Emma Bretton, commercial executive at the industry awarding organisation EAL, which developed the qualification for Nissan in partnership with training provider NAC Group, says that programmes such as this are a good way for employers to get to know candidates before they take them on. “An engineering apprenticeship is a sustained period of training and assessment, so an entry-to-work programme can help an organisation see that someone has the basic skills, industry awareness and drive to succeed,” she says. “Employers could also open up opportunities in their supply chain, so if they don’t take someone on they might be able to place that person elsewhere.”

Government initiatives

Driving up quality in apprenticeships requires a lot of commitment from employers, but examples such as this show that it can pay off. The Government is clearly trying to place more power in employers’ hands. In the past fortnight, it has announced that employers will be able to bid for apprenticeship funding, subject to evidence that they are running “high-quality” schemes, and announced a £1 billion “youth contract scheme” that will provide subsidised work placements for 18- to 24-year-olds.

At a time of recruitment freezes and uncertainty in the job market, putting more money into recruiting young people with no experience or qualifications may seem counter-intuitive, but Rudiger suggests it could be a wise move: “It’s a way of preparing for the recovery. Companies that train are more likely to survive a recession.”

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