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Leading by example: boosting apprenticeships through the public sector

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2013

The Work Foundation has called for a fundamental reform of apprenticeships. Researcher Katy Jones explains.

Apprenticeships are back on the political agenda and there is a growing consensus of their value among the main parties. However, our research has found that the current apprenticeship system has significant limitations: many are too short, low quality, and are failing to provide young people with clear vocational pathways from school into work.

With youth unemployment stuck at around one million, these issues need to be tackled urgently.

Crucially, not enough employers offer apprenticeships, and The Work Foundation thinks that government has an important role to play in boosting employer demand for quality apprenticeship opportunities both directly and indirectly through procurement.

Meeting demand

Currently, only 15% of UK employers offer apprenticeships and even fewer actually employ them. This is one of the main problems with our current system, particularly when compared to some other European countries where nearly all employers are engaged.

As a result UK apprenticeships have not been developed with their needs in mind, and many employers are unaware of their benefits such as increasing workforce skills and improving staff retention. This is likely to have further limited their growth.

With such limited employer involvement, it is unsurprising that demand for taking up an apprenticeship currently outstrips supply. This situation is set to worsen when the age of compulsory participation in education or training rises to 18 in 2015 when more young people will be looking for meaningful opportunities to develop skills and enhance their employability.

Lead by example

As a large employer, government should lead by direct example and create more opportunities for apprenticeships in local and national government and across the public sector. The public sector (including local and central government and UK public corporations) employs around 5.7 million people across a range of sectors including public administration, construction, education and health.

However, a recent parliamentary question uncovered that even in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, there were just 37 apprentices (out around 2,500 staff), only three of whom were aged 19 or below. With clear cross-party agreement about the value of apprenticeships, it is surprising that government is not doing more to demonstrate this by employing more apprentices directly.

Public opportunities

There are of course limits as to what the public sector can achieve through direct employment. Following changes to government spending and a continuing austerity package, public sector employment is contracting. Growth in the private sector jobs market is therefore fundamental to a strong economic recovery, and recent figures suggest this is beginning to pick up. Moreover, we know from our analysis that young people are disproportionately employed in the private sector – and hence should benefit from the growth of opportunities there.

But whilst the role of the public sector in some sectors is limited, it can still work to stimulate demand for apprentices through procurement. This has begun to happen, for example through several major projects including Crossrail which has created a large number of apprenticeship opportunities.

There are legitimate concerns about using procurement simply to boost apprenticeships numbers. Issuing strong requirements to offer them for those bidding for procurement contracts could negatively impact on the apprenticeship system in a number of ways, including potentially hindering the push towards apprenticeships being more ‘business-led’, in addition to increasing the ‘red tape’ which small businesses in particular may find difficult to manage.

Joined-up engagement

But whilst care is needed, the public sector has an important role in encouraging employers who win major public procurement contracts to provide as many hiring and training opportunities for young people as possible, either directly or through their supply chains. This requires raised awareness among procurement professionals about the benefits that high quality apprenticeships can bring, and how to better support employers to offer them. It will also be easier in some sectors than others, for example in the social care sector, which we focus on in the report, has close relationships between employers and local authorities. Currently, however, this kind of engagement happens very unevenly and so, going forward, a more ‘joined-up’ approach is required.

Our apprenticeship system needs urgent reform if it is to provide young people with strong vocational pathways into the labour market. Engaging more employers and offering apprenticeships is one major area that must be addressed urgently. Whilst there are limits to what government can do, both directly and via procurement, as a major employer it has a responsibility to practice what it preaches and do more to create and promote the value of high quality apprenticeships.

Katy Jones is the author of the latest The Work Foundation report, ‘The Road Less Travelled? Improving the apprenticeship pathway for young people’. She is a researcher within the socio-economic programme at The Work Foundation.


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