Fall in apprenticeship uptake hits young people hardest

Number of new starters aged under 19 drops at twice the average rate, as experts warn this age group is in danger of being ‘left nowhere’

Around 6,200 fewer apprentices began training between August and October 2019 than the same period the previous year, official figures have shown, with experts noting a “worrying” drop in the number of younger apprentices and those taking lower-level courses.

Figures from the Department of Education showed that 125,800 people began apprenticeships in the first quarter of the 2019/20 academic year, compared with 132,000 during the same period in 2018/19. While this represents a modest 4.7 per cent fall in new starts, the number of new starts from those under the age of 19 decreased by 11.2 per cent – more than twice the overall rate.

The only demographic to see an increase was those over the age of 25 starting a higher level courses, equivalent to foundation degree level qualifications and above. There were 1,000 more over-25 year olds beginning higher level apprenticeships in 2019/20 than in the same quarter the previous year.

The number of people taking the highest level of apprenticeship, equal to degree level study, increased 49.4 per cent since 2018/19 and is nearly five times higher than in 2017/18.

Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of new apprenticeships were supported by levy-paying employers, with 32 per cent of those opportunities being for higher level qualifications.

Kathleen Henehan, research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said the figures were “worrying” because they suggested a move away from the traditional idea of an apprenticeship being an alternative route into work for young people.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

“Our view of apprenticeships is something that gives primarily young people, but maybe some adults who are in need of a second chance, a route to the skills required for a good career,” she said.

“The apprenticeship system has really failed to offer that for quite some time [and] the figures today are worrying because we're now almost moving in a different direction. We have seen a fall in older apprentices doing lower level courses but a rise in the older apprentices doing higher level courses. And young people are still kind of left nowhere.”

Henehan emphasised the benefits of the new levy system, saying that more stringent requirements for the quality of training had improved apprenticeship standards, but argued there was a case for the government to reform funding mechanisms, “such that it forces levy-paying employers to spend a particular proportion of their levy funds on young people, and/or new starters”.

She added it was important to “push employers’ hands so they're not just able to take what’s in their pot and spend it on pre-existing staff who to some extent might not actually need that new MBA.”

But, Lizzie Crowley, skills adviser at the CIPD, said it was a positive sign that the UK’s apprenticeships system was “shifting towards the provision of higher level technical skills”, noting that lower level schemes were not a big part of most most other countries’ systems. 

However, Crowley said there were still problems with the levy system and argued that large employers currently found their hands tied by limits on where the funding could be spent. 

“[Employers are] quite rationally looking to see how much they can spend and maximise the amount they’re spending internally,” she said. “Without reform of the levy to a more flexible training fund, I think it’s going to be very difficult to change the pattern of behaviour we're seeing.”

A Department for Education spokespersons said: “We are investing significantly to level up skills and opportunity across the country and apprenticeships are playing a key role in this.

“We recognise there is more work to do and we are continuing to look at how the apprenticeship programme can best support the changing needs of businesses so more people can get ahead and all employers can benefit.”