Government considering guaranteed apprenticeships for young people, says prime minister

Proposed changes would help boost employment post-coronavirus, but experts warn of ‘excess pressure’ on employers

The prime minister has suggested the government could guarantee apprenticeships for all young people as part of efforts to boost employment as the country feels the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Boris Johnson told a press conference yesterday there will be “many, many job losses” across the country as a result of the crisis, and said young people in particular faced a “risk they will be out of jobs for a long time”.

He added that it would be “vital” that the government guarantees apprenticeships for young people, and said it would adopt an “activist and interventionist” approach to the country’s economic recovery.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, welcomed the prime minister’s announcement. “History tells us that young people often suffer the most during recessions,” he said, adding that “urgent action is needed because the deadline of 10 June for new furloughs means thousands of existing apprentices who are currently being trained while on furlough face the threat of being laid off.”

Analysis from the Office for National Statistics has shown that young people aged 16-24 have had the biggest reduction in their working hours since the crisis began, seeing on average a drop of 5.4 per cent. Meanwhile, a recent report from the Resolution Foundation found that employees aged 16-24 were twice as likely to work in sectors of the economy shut down by the coronavirus crisis as the rest of the workforce.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, welcomed extra support for younger people. "I think a far greater share of apprenticeships should go to people aged under 25," he said, noting that the growth in the number of apprenticeships over the last decade has broadly been driven by people aged over 25, indicating that most apprenticeships “now go to existing employees, rather than new labour market entrants”.

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But equal focus was needed on helping those over the age of 25 to “develop the skills they need at different stages of their working lives”, he added. “We can't just look at one section of the labour market in isolation,” he said, “it needs to be a holistic approach.”

The proposed guarantee could also put excess pressure on employers in an already challenging environment, warned Becci Newton, deputy director of public policy at the Institute for Employment Studies. She said employers needed to invest significant time in on-the-job training to ensure that apprenticeships were high quality, which could be difficult for many at a time when many industries were having to consider workforce redundancies and were coping with depleted finances.

But, Newton added, education was important coming out of the crisis. She advised young people to “lock into education and defer entering what will be a highly competitive labour market, where employers may value existing skills and experience over new entrants”.

Kirstie Donnelly, CEO of City & Guilds Group, added that it would be wrong to treat apprenticeships as a ‘silver bullet’ for reskilling workers. “With unemployment levels reaching record highs, we need to ensure there are different solutions available to meet the needs of both individuals and employers,” she said.

“Rather than focusing solely on apprenticeships, we need a degree of flexibility and better availability of government funding.”

Yesterday, three former chancellors of the exchequer took questions on the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis. Former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling predicted “a wave of unemployment” would hit once the government’s furlough system winds down, and it was suggested unemployment levels could reach levels not seen since the 1980s.