The Government recently announced measures which are aimed to raise the status of apprenticeships alongside reaching its aim of 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020. These measures involve, for example, taking legal action against firms which are running bogus schemes. Apprenticeships are not just a marketing tool or a helpful addition to a press release, they are a vital tool in equipping people with high level skills and driving productivity growth.
Increasingly apprenticeships are seen as a superior route to employment than three years of expensive university education and the rising number and choice of apprenticeships reflects this. The number of apprenticeships has been rising since 2005/06 with significant increases over the last few years. Overall there were about 2.2 million apprenticeship starts over the last Parliament. Developing a strong work ethic and higher skills at a younger age through apprenticeships will inevitably lead to more productive future workers.
The Government must ensure that it does everything possible to make it easier for employers to offer apprenticeships. Giving employers the freedom to plan and manage the training for their own apprenticeships rather than being prescribed certain providers is one important step. However, the Government must ensure that the funding process does not become excessively burdensome. Employers have neither the time nor the inclination to have to deal with additional bureaucracy and this is especially the case with SMEs which remain a largely untapped resource for apprenticeships.
Concerns over bureaucracy and up-front funding costs must also be addressed rapidly to avoid any further uncertainty. The Government should consider letting employers decide if they would prefer to be directly funded or to have the funding and administration handled by a chosen provide as suggested by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers.
There are three levels of apprenticeships, Intermediate, Advanced and Higher. These are approximately equivalent to GCSE, A-Level and a Foundation degree. As has been mentioned, many young people who choose not to pursue university education are still able to gain useful skills with an apprenticeship. Unfortunately, there remains a damaging lack of awareness amongst young people of the great quality of many apprenticeships.
Employers increasingly demand the mix of academic and practical skills that an apprenticeship can provide. This is not only through the learning of skills specific to a role but also transferable skills including being able to build a professional network, punctuality, communication skills and taking the initiative. In fact, there is evidence that employers view qualified apprentices as more employable than those with other qualifications.
The Government is introducing more ways of measuring performance on an apprenticeship. However, as I suggested in Mind the Skills Gap, much more needs to be done to end the damaging divide between apprenticeships and the more traditional routes. Despite being such effective tools, apprenticeships are still too often seen as a second class qualification.
The Government should introduce more sophisticated ways to measure how well an apprentice has performed throughout the programme. Also, a standardised grading system similar to a university degree classification should be introduced. As a recent article in The Independent shows, support for these sort of National Apprenticeship Qualifications is growing. This will provide more information on the relative performance of different aspects of an apprenticeship which should drive up standards. The focus on apprenticeships is welcome but the next steps for reforming apprenticeships will be important.