Apprenticeships are far too popular with the general public for their own good. It’s so easy for politicians to bask in a warm glow of approval when they announce increased support for apprenticeships that they are currently seen as the answer to far more problems than they can realistically solve. Here are four examples.

– Apprenticeships are not the answer to providing good quality provision for the majority of 16-19 year olds who don’t want to do A levels (or in many cases do want to but are not wanted by A level providers). Changes in the youth labour market mean that apprenticeships will only ever be available for a small minority of the cohort: continual demands that they should be better understood by school leavers simply disguises the fact that the real issue is to provide more and better vocational provision, mostly in colleges, and broadly along the lines set out by Alison Wolf.

– Apprenticeships are not the answer to unemployment; it is jobs that are needed for both adults and young people. A job with training is clearly better than a job without but measures to stimulate employment need to be quite different to and more broad ranging than incentives to turn jobs into apprenticeships. Once again promising more apprenticeships disguises the lack of real action to create jobs.

– Apprenticeships are not the answer to up-skilling the adult workforce. As a country we probably need to invest more in training adult employees and there is a potential role for public funding to play; but simply re-badging Train to Gain type interventions as apprenticeships helps no-one, and risks damaging the apprenticeship brand. Issues around who should pay to increase the skills of the existing workforce need to be tackled head on.

– Apprenticeships are not the answer if large numbers of young people feel they can’t afford HE. Increased demand from those who would formerly have gone to university will create no more jobs and will displace existing applicants; moreover there is a real shortage of apprenticeships at Level 4 and growth in their number is likely to be slow. Answers to our HE problems should include better student support, better communication of the generous support there already is, and increasing opportunities for part time and locally based degree level work, probably offered through FE colleges.

What then should be done to rescue apprenticeships from the hugely inflated expectations that are currently attached to them? Part of the answer might be to recognise that the public understands apprenticeships as a good way of progressing young people into skilled employment, and for policy to go with the grain of that understanding.

That means stepping back from a bureaucratic attempt to create an apprenticeship route into all occupations; and also rethinking whether it makes sense to put a developmental programme for young people in a Department and Agency that both major in adult skills. There is a strong case for policy on the initial training of young people to be led by the Department of Education.

It’s so easy for politicians to bask in a warm glow of approval when they announce increased support for apprenticeships that they are currently seen as the answer to far more problems than they can realistically solve”

The second part of the solution is to take seriously the arguments advanced by bodies such as AELP and the IoD that apprenticeships should essentially be an employer driven programme. That means that government agencies should back off and leave it to employers to determine how many apprentices to employ and within broad limits what they should study. This does not mean handing public money to employers to spend – all that would do is perpetuate the game whereby training providers chase public investment and in some cases collude with employers to get their hands on it without adding any significant value.

Government should be very clear and quite restrictive in what it funds: basic skills for 16-19 apprentices for certain – its not for employers to meet the cost of the general education we prescribe for those under the compulsory participation age.

A good case can be made for government funding for the general education component of apprenticeships for those aged 19-24. Beyond that funding should be a matter for employers. There is an interesting debate to be had as to whether some support for employers might be delivered through loans – the need to repay would ensure that money was only spent on things that add value – but in the main employer led should mean employer funded.

The final step is to stop counting. In a system which is truly employer led the numbers of apprentices would find their own level. There would certainly be a fall in numbers and a serious fall in those areas where growth has been inflated by easy access to government money. Apprentices would be taken on where they represented a sensible investment and not where there was no need. This would save money; but more importantly it would require government to address the serious problems identified earlier without the fiction that simply beating the drum for apprenticeships will solve them all.