Traineeships should not be dismissed just because of low take-up rates, says Fiona Aldridge.

We now know that in the six-months between August and January, 3,300 16 to 23-years-olds have enrolled on to a traineeship. Compared to the ongoing high levels of youth unemployment – 912,000, according to latest figures – it is no surprise that many have criticised this ‘flagship’ policy as failing to address youth unemployment.

Whilst it is off to a slower start than many hoped for, development work recently undertaken by NIACE – in consultation with over 50 staff, employers and trainees – demonstrates that the programme is making a difference and has real potential to deliver the focussed and individualised support that many young people need to make the transition into stable employment.

These include young people such as Ross, who spoke at a recent NIACE event – Traineeships: Learning from Practice. Before starting his traineeship at Weston College, Ross struggled with English and was not prepared for the world of work.

He said: “When I went for the first interview at Weston College I couldn’t even look the tutors in the eye, I had no confidence, no idea what to wear to a job interview or how to talk to employers. I thought I’d never be able to improve my English and didn’t know how to improve my job prospects.”

Following a period of work-preparation training, tailored support around English and maths, and a work experience placement with Sainsbury’s, things have really changed. Ross has started work, has aspirations to teach and has the confidence to speak publicly about how his traineeship has helped him.

Ross is not the only traineeship success story. During the last few months NIACE has spoken to many young people who are making significant progress on their journey to employment as a result of a traineeship.

Importantly, many employers welcome the opportunity to give a young person a chance and to see what potential they have, before offering them a job or apprenticeship. They recognise that young people are part of their local community and often their customers too – so it makes good business sense to engage them.

Providers across the sector recognise that traineeships meet a real need; the programme has a clearly defined outcome, yet provides a flexible approach to meeting Trainees’ needs. For many providers, traineeships have filled the gap in provision – targeted support for young people who were not quite ready for an apprenticeship, many of whom were knocked back time and time again, with little support to develop the skills, experience and attributes that they need and that employers are looking for.

Our work has shown two main models for delivering traineeships emerging within the sector. Firstly, a re-engagement model – where providers develop provision to bring young people back into learning, offering work placements with a range of employers, across a range of occupational areas and sectors. Secondly, a business-led model – focused around working with a single employer or group of employers to design and deliver a traineeship programme, which meets their specific needs and the needs of young people.

However, a number of factors have emerged that are hindering the success of the Programme.  Firstly, the different eligibility criteria for 16 to 18-year-olds (prior achievement must be below level three) against those aged 19 to 23 (prior achievement must be below level two).  Almost all of the providers we spoke to reported turning away young people aged 19-plus from Traineeships because they had already gained a level two qualification.

Secondly, benefits rules affecting JSA claimants are also restricting take up of the Programme. Whilst the removal of the 16-hour rule for Trainees from March is welcome, traineeship policy and benefits policy are not yet fully in-sync, particularly around the length of work experience placements – limited to eight weeks for JSA claimants, with a possible extension to 12 weeks.

Similarly, providers continue to report differing levels of support from Job Centre Plus across the country. Some recognise the value of traineeships, have a good understanding of the programme and work in partnership with providers to refer the right young people. Others, however, show a lack of awareness (often referring ineligible young people) or unwillingness to engage with the programme and with providers who are seeking to recruit young people as trainees.

The traineeship programme has the potential to enable a wider range of young people – including care leavers, ex-offenders and young parents – to gain a foot on the ladder and a route into stable and rewarding employment. There is enthusiasm and commitment from employers, providers and most importantly, from young people. Taking the action now to widen rather than limit the scope and potential of traineeships, will enhance the employment chances of some of our more disadvantaged young people considerably and set them on the way to fulfilling and rewarding careers.

Dr Fiona Aldridge is Head of Learning for Work at the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.