The Promise of Apprenticeships?

This morning, the Conservatives have pledged to spend Deutsche Bank’s LIBOR fines on creating apprenticeships for unemployed 22-24 year olds. David Cameron has also pledged to introduce legislation in his first 100 days, if re-elected, to ‘create’ 3 million apprenticeships. Like their Conservative partners, the Liberal Democrats are listing this Parliament’s 2 million apprenticeships as one of their key social and economic achievements.

Labour meanwhile claim that they too will prioritise more apprenticeships but only at higher levels, abolishing Level 2, and ensuring that more of the rest meet stricter standards. All parties are also promising a big expansion of higher level apprenticeships, from the Conservatives’ degree apprenticeships to Labour’s technical degrees. (I’ve written before about higher level apprenticeships – see http://www.wonkhe.com/blogs/apprenticeships/ and http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2011/nov/22/apprenticeships-route-into-universities)

Apprenticeships have become a proxy for pretty much all vocational education and at the same time, cat nip for politicians. To trace the beginnings we could go back as far as 1563 and the Statute of Artificiers, but let’s jump to the early 1990s and John Major’s relaunching of Modern Apprenticeships in a range of ‘exciting new careers’. They had to be new because many had disappeared in waves of economic shocks hitting the UK’s economy in the 1970s and 1980s. Apprenticeships disappeared in manufacturing, engineering, construction, mining, shipbuilding as rapidly as jobs and firms did. So too did apprenticeships in the public sector – the works departments of councils that were replaced by contracted services. Largely all of these were formal routes or transitions into work for school leavers, combined with released study at a technical college or a polytechnic.

Today, politicians still describe apprenticeships as primarily for the young and as a way of learning trades and getting skilled, well paying jobs. So too do the media. Neither have ever known that much about vocational education if we’re honest and even fewer have experienced it. But both often get it wrong. Not because apprenticeships lead to poor jobs or often no jobs at all (although for some, this is the case) but because the majority of apprenticeships are taken up by people well beyond ‘school’ leaving age and most are already working for the employers that offer them an apprenticeship.

At their heart, apprenticeships are jobs with training, not training with some work experience along the way. So politicians don’t really create them at all. The nature of the training depends entirely on the job and the skills that it requires – and these can be developed through a wide range of different qualifications from traditional City and Guilds crafts, including at Level 2, through to degrees and to postgraduate and/or professional qualifications too.

Apprenticeships reflect the labour market and economy that exists and largely that is a polarised one with diverging skill levels. This means that our labour market is quite likely to create apprenticeships at low as well as higher levels. But the jobs at the lower end are less likely to be skilled, secure or well paid. A secondary factor is that the young are finding it increasingly difficult to get into work and then as hard to break out of low skilled, low paid jobs into better jobs. There are also issues of skill shortages and productivity to consider. All of which may explain why apprenticeships are a significant election issue. But these are only vaguely connected or discussed when politicians think and talk about them. Their interest is driven by other less complex things.

Firstly, most politicians love a big number and a big target: two million jobs, three million apprenticeships. It fits into a straightforward script and a simple narrative. They offer a set of promises that you can get away with. People like the idea but they don’t care so much for the detail. Apprenticeships are easy, sometimes lazy, politics.

Secondly, it’s the yin to the yang of university expansion. Tony Blair created a backlash when he introduced a 50% target for HE participation. Many thought that was too high. Many still think so. Some wanted to know what would happen to the other 50%. That plays to a benevolent hypocrisy ie my kids will go to university but there should be something for ‘other people’s children’.

Thirdly, there’s the throwback factor. This is the rose-tinted, somewhat sentimental history of the ‘traditional’ jobs and industries of the past – a time when our vocational training system worked, when more employers offered training, when more of the world’s manufacturing and engineering was ‘Made in Britain’. Of course this may be more stylised than real history.

Finally, politicians and voters like apprenticeships because they embody the popular values of our time. They offer the promise of a good job, but only if you work hard to get one. This makes an apprenticeship an entry level version of the ‘someone who works hard and wants to get on’ story, or a step towards becoming part of a ‘hard working family’.

That’s the political appeal. But how do apprenticeships really stack up against these drivers? Who gets them and at what levels are they studying? In 20013-14 (the last full year of data), 27% were under 19, 36% 19-24 and 37% 25 and over. The numbers in each age group represent 3%, 40% and 229% increases from 2009-10 respectively. Some 65% of all apprenticeships are at Level 2, 33% at Level 3 and only 2% at higher degree levels. More often than not, an apprentice today is likely to be in their mid 20s and studying at Level 2. They are also most likely to be in a job before they get an apprenticeship and not leaving school or benefits. So when the headlines promise 2 or 3 million apprenticeships either as an alternative to university, to a dead end job or to unemployment, interested people will reasonably ask why there don’t seem to be very many available to them.

When the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats came to power they had a number of policy promises. One was to grow apprenticeships, another was to abolish Train to Gain – a by then discredited mass work based training programme introduced by Labour. Along the way the two became conflated. Many training bodies and employers simply shifted from one to the other. They followed the money and the numbers shot up. As the figures show, most of the growth and the current numbers of apprenticeships tended to focus on adults already in work. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but it just isn’t what most people consider to be an apprenticeship.

That’s quite enough policy detail – probably too much. So whether 50,000 or 3 million, it really is better not to promise a number at all but that’s probably not politically realistic. But although politicians can extrapolate and forecast or cross their fingers and hope, they would be better off focusing on the present – the details and issues of delivery and demand, rather than the big numbers of the future or the misremembered past.

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