When some apprentices are not even given quality training, the 10p increase to the apprentice wage is a sham, says Shakira Martin.

Based on the last few months, you’d think the government was gearing up to put some of the money that’s been taken from further education back in.

We’ve had the introduction of the Post-16 Skills Plan, a bill on Technical and FE, a fundamental reshuffling of colleges in England through area reviews and finally an autumn statement that claimed to be all about productivity.

But the increase of 10p an hour for apprentices is a sham. The apprentice national minimum wage, at £3.50 per hour, is less than half of the government’s own proposed national ‘living wage’ of £7.50 per hour, and still lower than the real Living Wage of £8.45.

How is an increase of just 10p an hour to a group of already underpaid people an attractive offer? And with the national living wage only applying to those aged 25 and over, it’s just another sure sign we have a government making policies that are not going to enable young people, but make sure they get the hardest possible start to their working career.

Since apprenticeships are not ‘approved education or training’ for the purpose of child benefits or council tax, it’s not just low pay that’s a problem for many apprentices. If the wages are not attractive or viable and families are penalised through changes to benefits and exemptions, grand targets of three million starts and all the slick advertising in the world are still not going to make an apprenticeship a viable offer for many.

In our submission to the Low Pay Commission this year, the NUS recommended the equalisation of the national minimum wage so all workers, including apprentices and regardless of age, receive the same rate and that rate is set at the national living wage.

‘Forget Me Not’, our report on the state of apprentice funding and support, outlined the financial struggles of apprentices on the last apprentice minimum wage rate, including stories of reliance on commercial credit.

Other NUS research indicated almost half of apprentices are making choices about what apprenticeship to do based on where they could afford to get to, not on the basis of any information and guidance they might have received or their own career aspirations. I imagine this will only increase for some as colleges merge and travelling to providers may become a longer journey.

In particular, apprentices struggle with very low pay, not only because the apprenticeship rate is set so low, but because there are high levels of noncompliance, especially for those aged 18 to 20 and in certain occupations.

The LPC has previously stated there may be a ‘culture of non-compliance’ in relation to hairdressing in particular. This noncompliance entrenches gendered inequality in wages. We all know it’s predominantly women training and working in the lowest-paid areas, from hair and beauty to social care.

It’s time to get serious about what makes a quality apprenticeship

Although I’m encouraged to see the government promise in the Skills Plan to get more women onto STEM courses and into the top-paid jobs, this does nothing to solve staggering inequality at the bottom of the wage scale.

And it’s time to get serious about what makes a quality apprenticeship. Even where apprentices are paid the correct rate, they may not be receiving the training that ostensibly justifies their lower pay.

Many apprentices I’ve spoken to through the National Society of Apprentices said they received neither on- nor off-the-job training, and BIS research suggests the reason behind this is ‘lack of interest and support from employers’. In some cases employers have apprentices so they can pay young people less without ever wishing to invest in training.

My membership deserves better. They deserve to train, learn and work in an environment that provides an education for a career – not just training for a job – in a role that is paid fairly, supports their progression and where their status allows them and their families the same benefits their peers in college or university are entitled to.

 

Shakira Martin is vice president for further education at the national union of students