How can we avoid Covid creating a ‘lost generation’?

Ruth Christy looks at how employers can help young people who may have lost opportunities because of coronavirus to enter the workplace

Following the recent adverse publicity for university students, with many self-isolating in halls of residence and having much, if not all, of their course delivered online, some aspiring undergraduates may be rethinking a degree option.

With the prospect of high debt for any student for up to 30 years, people from less affluent socio-economic backgrounds, as well as those from BAME backgrounds are less likely to attend university. The current pandemic is also having an impact, with a recent Equality and Human Right Commission report stating that young people risk becoming a ‘lost generation’, with those in certain ethnic minorities falling even further behind. In such a difficult job market, do employers have a moral obligation to help young people enter the workplace by widening their support for other forms of education? 

The main alternative to higher education is apprenticeships, heavily promoted in recent years with the apprenticeship levy and recruitment targets. The levy has been controversial, but the government has tried to make the system easier to navigate and more employer-friendly, whether you do or don’t pay it. 

Alongside this, the government recently launched the Kickstart scheme: fully-funded six-month job placements for 16-24 year olds on Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment. It must be for a minimum of 30 job placements but employers can join forces through a ‘gateway’ if they need fewer. 

Whilst undoubtedly attractive, the requirement not to replace existing/planned vacancies or cause existing employees/contractors to lose or reduce their jobs, could render this option unfeasible in the current climate. 

Additionally the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, while perhaps aimed at older adults, is another option which may offer other opportunities and more funding for apprenticeships.

The benefits of apprenticeships

For businesses with 50 or more employees, but who aren’t levy-payers, the government ‘co-invests’ 95 per cent of the cost of the external course element of the apprenticeship (which must be at least 20 per cent of an apprentice's normal hours in England). For those with fewer than 50 employees, the government pays 100% of this cost for young apprentices subject to funding band limits.

This August, a new incentive was introduced for taking on apprentices new to the business (£2,000 for 16-24 year olds; £1,500 for those 25 and over), and there is an incentive too for progressing those on the ‘Kickstart Scheme’ to apprenticeships prior to 31 January 2021.

Many employers find that the additional costs of management time and supervision needed for apprentices are counterbalanced by the lower wages initially required and the knowledge that the apprentice will learn in accordance with the employer's values and needs. 

What legal rules apply?

Having come far from the traditional ‘apprentice’ in employment law with the risks of not being able to dismiss or make them redundant, it is still important to get an apprenticeship agreement right. Following changes in 2015, an ‘approved English apprenticeship agreement’ is used in England and an ‘apprenticeship agreement’ continues in Wales. Separate provisions apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Whichever type of agreement applies, there are a number of formalities which must be included in the agreement to prevent the apprentice having the historic enhanced legal protection against dismissal. These formalities differ between England and Wales. Employers should take legal advice to ensure the agreement is compliant – if not, it could be deemed a ‘contract of apprenticeship’ with the difficulties mentioned above regarding terminating employment.

While training providers often provide template agreements designed to comply with the law, if the agreement is faulty, it is the employer who is impacted, so it is in their interest to ensure that it is in order. A number of other provisions should be included regarding course attendance, inspecting certificates/attendance records, and contact between the employer and training provider. 

Getting it right

With the economic situation facing school leavers, attracting apprentices should not be difficult, and is good for employers, apprentices as well as the wider economy – but employers need to ensure they are publicising the opportunities by varied means to engage pupils who would otherwise not consider the suggestion. 

Finally, employers should not undervalue apprentices or view them as a cheap form of labour. Having invested much in their training, it is a great shame for employers to lose an apprentice who realises that the skills that they have now learned are more highly valued by a competitor.

Ruth Christy is a professional support lawyer in the employment team at Blake Morgan LLP