The Government has committed itself to creating an extra 250,000 Apprenticeships by 2015. This is a challenging target, particularly in an economic downturn, with increasing youth unemployment and dramatic reductions in opportunities in the very industries, such as construction, that have traditionally provided places.

Initial progress was good. By June 2011, the target of an extra 50,000 starts in 2010-11 had been substantially exceeded, with over 103,000 extra places.

But there were concerns that these initial gains were not sustainable – in particular, that small companies that had taken on Apprentices in response to the initial push could not maintain the same level of recruitment year on year.

A strong case was made to the Cabinet Office, and Francis Maude relaxed the ban on Government advertising to help reach the target.

So after national advertising and promotional campaigns such as ‘100 Apprenticeships in 100 Days’, are the employers flocking in? Not perhaps to the degree that had been hoped.

While recruitment has been steady, some sectors (including many parts of the public sector) are notably slow in taking up the opportunity to recruit Apprentices – and recent evidence hints that promotion may be part of the cause, rather than the solution.

One problem seems be employers’ perceptions of who Apprentice candidates are. Last year the Campaign for Learning undertook small-scale research for Pearson on barriers to Apprenticeships – and found many employers had a marked suspicion about the quality of Apprenticeship candidates.

Some equated the Apprenticeships of today with the Youth Training and Youth Opportunities Programme schemes of the 1970s and 1980s, despite extensive promotion of Level 3 and Higher Level Apprenticeships. Promotion of Apprenticeships as a scheme for young people of the very highest calibre seems to have had very little impact on employers’ perceptions.

Indeed, Apprenticeship advertising appears to have had exactly the opposite effect with some, who become ever more suspicious about quality the more they see Apprenticeships pushed in the media.

“These young people must be really poor if the Government has to put in so much effort to get employers to take them on” is the reaction we received from some employers – and Apprentice recruitment agencies report finding the same.

This leaves the Government in a Catch 22 situation – if increased promotion may cause more cynicism amongst some of those employers they really need on board, what can they do to attract new employers to the scheme?

Employers we spoke to who had been initially suspicious but won round reported that it was personal contact that made the difference – with providers they trusted, with colleagues in the same industry with positive experiences to share, and in particular with Apprentices themselves.

So perhaps Simon Waugh’s successor might wish to consider ditching the advertising altogether and throwing the marketing budget into the Ambassadors Network and local promotion.

Local good news stories about known employers and real Apprentices may in the end prove the simplest, most effective way to get the Government’s Apprenticeship messages across.

Tricia Hartley, chief executive of
Campaign for Learning