We need to be creating a seamless pipeline towards higher-level apprenticeships, writes Cindy Rampersaud

Recognising National Apprenticeship Week is more important than ever before this year. As we begin to look towards reopening both the economy and society, we need to consider how we will offer opportunities to those who have been most impacted by the pandemic.

We need to ensure people have access to programmes to build fulfilling careers, contributing to the recovery of the UK and also mitigating a widening inequality gap.

Even before the pandemic, policymakers were prioritising reskilling to tackle the rapidly evolving jobs market.

In 2019, the government’s UK Skills Mismatch 2030 paper had predicted that seven million additional workers could be ill equipped for their job requirements by 2030. That’s about 20 per cent of the labour market.

So one of the biggest draws of apprenticeship is that they offer the opportunity to gain skills on the job while earning ̶ particularly attractive if you’re reskilling later in life.

Vocational learning is also a route to higher education that is more appealing to those who do not wish to pursue a career through academia.

Worsening inequalities

But the pandemic is worsening existing inequalities, impacting women, the BAME community, those with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, young people and those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

For many women, Covid has brought additional pressures in the form of increased caring responsibilities and higher unemployment, as 2.5 million women work in heavily impacted sectors.

The BAME community has seen a 47 per cent drop in household income compared to the national average of 28 per cent over the past year, with 15 per cent reporting losing their jobs, compared to a national average of eight per cent.

Research by the charity Turn2us found that 58 per cent of BAME workers have had their employment affected since the start of the pandemic, compared to 47 per cent of white workers.

There is currently an under-representation of BAME apprentices across all levels in our economy and it is no coincidence that there has been a notable reduction in participation rates in education, too.

Post-Covid, apprenticeships provide a real opportunity to bridge some of the inequality gaps

In the post-Covid era, apprenticeships provide a real opportunity to bridge some of the inequality gaps and mitigate the effects by providing access to retrain, upskill and access careers.

A more inclusive route

Apprenticeships are a crucial vehicle for those looking to return to the workforce. They also provide a more inclusive route to upskilling for those of all backgrounds.

The Social Mobility Commission found that learners from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds benefit more from apprenticeships than those from non-disadvantaged backgrounds. The boost to their earnings post-apprenticeship is greater than for their non-disadvantaged peers.

However, we should also think about the ways people can undertake apprenticeships. Providing technical and occupational learning to 16- to 18-year-olds has been notoriously difficult in the past. The pandemic has only exacerbated that challenge.

Seamless pipeline needed

T Levels have a fundamental role to play in upskilling future generations and are a welcome initiative to sit alongside existing pathways.

But we must now look ahead to create a seamless pipeline to higher-level apprenticeships and work with employers to make that a reality.

To create inclusive opportunities for all, there must be choice between routes that suit those starting out in their career or looking to develop new skills.

If the options available are limited, you close off opportunities for millions of people.

Apprenticeships form an incredibly important part of that mix, especially for the 60 per cent of over-16s who choose a vocational or work-based pathway. 

As we look ahead to the post-Covid world, ensuring structures are in place to offer opportunities to all in our society so they can thrive in their careers will be vital to the success of our recovery.

So apprenticeships really matter more now than ever.

The theme of this year’s National Apprenticeship Week is ‘Build the Future’. But if we are to do that, we must open opportunities for everyone and address the gaps now.