Apprenticeship starts plummet by a fifth in a year, government figures show

Experts highlight ‘major concern’ over post-Covid opportunities for young people as stats also reveal drop in proportion of lowest-level qualifications

Concerns have been raised over training and skills development opportunities for young people as the Covid pandemic abates, after government figures revealed the number of people starting apprenticeships has dropped by 19 per cent since this time last year.

Experts have also expressed worries over the number of intermediate starts – the lowest level equivalent to five GCSEs – which only make up 26 per cent of the total for the first two quarters of 2020-21, compared to 31 per cent of starts in 2019-20.

Conversely, higher apprenticeships accounted for nearly a third of starts (32 per cent) so far in 2020-21, compared to just 26 per cent in 2019-20.

In addition, less than a quarter (24 per cent) of starts so far in 2020-21 were among the under-19s.

In April this year, it was reported that young people are bearing the brunt of unemployment, with the under-25s accounting for more than half (54 per cent) of total job losses over the last year.

However, last month the government revealed plans to reform apprenticeships, with the proposed introduction of a new flexible scheme that would allow apprentices to work across multiple employers to earn their qualification.

Jane Hickie, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said the decline in intermediate apprenticeship opportunities in comparison with the jump in higher apprenticeships was a “major concern”. 

“Apprenticeships should be about a ladder of opportunity, but you can’t climb a ladder if the bottom rungs are missing,” she said. 

It was announced in the 2021 budget that businesses can apply for £3,000 for each apprentice they take on between 1 April and 30 September. But Hickie said this wasn’t enough: “The chancellor’s Plan for Jobs incentives for apprenticeships have been welcome but, in the medium to longer term, we need a rebalancing of the levy funding system to benefit young people and provide more opportunities at the intermediate level.  

“The incentives should also be retuned to support this rebalancing into the medium term after the pandemic is over. Funding for 16 to 18-year-old apprenticeships should be removed from the levy system and these opportunities should be funded by the DfE’s mainstream budget as they were before 2017.”

Becci Newton, director of public policy and research at the Institute for Employment Studies, said: “The pandemic has had a drastic effect on young people’s employment. While not the whole picture by any means, the apprenticeship starts data tells part of the story. 

“No doubt, employers are still working to get back to business, which may include bringing existing apprentices back from furlough – so possibly, they are deferring a new apprenticeship intake for now.

“However, there’s a risk that, where employers are recruiting, they’re choosing to take on people who can be productive from day one, constraining opportunities for career entrant apprentices. 

“While the government has set in place funding to incentivise the employment of young apprentices, there’s a history of these having a limited effect on practise. 

“One data set is not enough to judge the effects on youth employment, but it is certain we need continued effort to press for high-quality opportunities that are productive in generating the skills young people and employers need.”

Lizzie Crowley, senior skills adviser at the CIPD, said: "These latest figures show a continuation of a long-term trend, with a greater share of apprenticeships going to those who are aged 25 years and over. 

“Apprenticeships play an important role in supporting the transition from education to the world of work, but the pathway is not currently working as well as it could. This is particularly concerning in light of the impact the pandemic has had on the youth labour market.”

Reforming the apprenticeship levy into a more flexible training levy, she said, could ensure that a greater share of apprenticeships go to new labour market entrants. 

“Giving employers greater flexibility would allow employers to develop existing staff through other forms of accredited training, which would be cheaper and more suitable for those who are 25 and over. This would then leave more money to invest in apprenticeships for young people," she explained.

Chris Stoker-Jones, director of vocational training at Catch22, said: “Apprenticeships are a vital part of the employment landscape – and particularly in this period of high youth unemployment. It’s therefore concerning that apprenticeship starts are dropping.

“The fall off in the number of young people starting apprenticeships may have been impacted by some of the schemes – such as Kickstart – that are focused on supporting young people into work placements.  

“What’s vital is that, in the midst of the drive to help young people into work, the huge benefit and potential of apprenticeships to provide sustainable roles that help businesses move forward, is not forgotten. 

“That will require not only incentives for businesses, but a continued culture change where apprenticeships are valuable, relevant and a desirable way into the workplace.”