Apprentices need to understand why completion is so important, and this needs to be led from the top, says Alan Woods

The phrase ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ might be commonly associated with University Challenge presenters, but it also articulates a mental resolve that should be adopted by young apprentices.

When it comes to the national apprenticeship agenda, the spotlight has firmly focused on the number of new starts the government will commit to.

The recent Association of Employment and Learning Providers manifesto, for example, suggested an increase from three to four million in the next parliament.

While getting young people into apprenticeships is crucial in terms of securing employment and creating a skilled workforce, these outcomes are dependent upon one critical factor: the completion of apprenticeship programmes.

The real measure of success in apprenticeship reforms is not in the number of new starts but in the number of completed programmes, and as such, it is vital that the next government commits to improving this.

Deliberate manipulation of the apprenticeship system needs to stop

The most recent figures show that in 2015/2016, only 67 per cent of apprenticeships were completed. To increase this rate, learners need to be shown that apprenticeships can be engaging, worthwhile, and ultimately rewarding.

If we are to achieve this, the learner perspective must be at the heart of initiatives, rather than allowing the national narrative to be too employer-led, or economy-driven.

Apprentices’ voices have been somewhat drowned out in all the industry noise. We hear so much about skills gaps identified by employers – particularly in the STEM sector – which are perceived to be the answer to improving the UK economy.

But learners pursuing other types of apprenticeship have to see the value of completion. We need a top-down recognition of all apprenticeship routes, rather than a STEM-centric approach. If a learner is made to feel that their skills aren’t appreciated, that their chosen career path isn’t important, or that they won’t meaningfully contribute to the economy, it can beg the ultimate question: what is the point?

Incentivising a learner to complete an apprenticeship needs to hinge on more than just conceptual support, however. There needs to be a real, tangible end-goal: in short, an apprenticeship needs to represent a direct line of sight to a job.

This clear pathway sometimes gets lost in tactical employer positioning. An individual can often be encouraged to undertake the next level apprenticeship immediately after completing their current one, effectively establishing a type of permanent apprenticeship position.

In many cases, this is not about providing the apprentice with a substantive job at the end, but so employers can be seen to be doing apprenticeships.

This deliberate manipulation of the apprenticeship system needs to stop, or else we risk entire cohorts of disillusioned apprentices who see no apparent end in sight. We need to make sure that employers and training providers are wholeheartedly committed not just to ensuring the learner passes the course, but actually gets a job at the end of it.

With that in mind, we need to raise the collective ambitions of everyone involved in apprenticeships. Employers should be encouraged to see apprenticeships as an opportunity to retain the very talent they have nurtured; providers should in turn deliver a programme of excellent teaching that meets employer set standards; awarding organisations need to make sure quality is upheld and duly recognised. The commitment of all these individual players will ensure that leaners are reassured that they are at the centre of a process which is primarily about helping them.

Getting young people into apprenticeships should be celebrated, but we need to remember that crossing the finish line is just as important as starting the race. The way to facilitate this is by ensuring that all routes are valued, and that all routes lead to job opportunities with market rates of pay.

The number of completed programmes will serve as the only meaningful indicator of the success of government reforms.

 

Alan Woods OBE is CEO of awarding organisation VTCT