Apprenticeships in the UK should last for a minimum of two years to align them to “international standards”, a new report has suggested.
The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development has also called for apprentices to attract lower levels of public funding from the age of 30 onwards to stop younger people from being “crowded out” of the system amid a surge in apprenticeships for older people who are simply looking to upskill.
The HR body published research today that highlighted falling employer investment in skills training despite the number of skills shortage vacancies rising across all four nations of the UK, with a particular focus on how apprenticeships have diverged training opportunities following the introduction of the levy in 2017.
Investment in training per employee in the UK has declined by 19 per cent since 2011, from £2,191 to £1,778, with UK investment per employee at around half that of the EU average, according to the report.
There has also been a 31 per cent decrease in the number of apprenticeship starts between 2015/16 and 2021/22 – a drop of over 160,000 – in England.
It found that apprenticeships are often “too short to be a meaningful introduction to a career for young people” and that the off-the-job (OTJ) component is towards the “lower end of the spectrum” compared to international competitors.
Currently, apprenticeships in England must be a minimum of 12 months long and last on average for 15 months, which the report warned is “substantially shorter” than other countries in Europe. Apprenticeships in Scotland often run for less than 12 months while programmes in Wales can also last for just a year. Apprenticeships in Northern Ireland, however, usually take at least two years.
Meanwhile, apprenticeships in Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Austria and Denmark run for between three and four years.
Apprentices in most of those countries also spend between a third and half of their time doing OTJ training, compared to 20 per cent – recently changed to at least six hours a week – in England. OTJ in Northern Ireland is similar to what is required in England, while Scotland has no general rule and Wales has varying OTJ requirements depending on the programme.
The CIPD said all four nations should specify programmes to be at least two years long, with set minimum off-the-job training days as a percentage of the programme.
However, there should be “some exceptions” to the minimum duration rule if, for example, a person already had substantial existing experience in the occupation or previous relevant prior learning. These would be called “fast-track” apprenticeships.
The chartered institute also echoed concerns that the growing number of older apprentices in the UK – with the exception of Northern Ireland – is “crowding out younger apprentices from the system” and using apprenticeship funding for “upskilling” existing employees.
In England, Scotland and Wales, apprentices aged 25 years and over made up the biggest proportion of the apprenticeships started in 2021/22, making up 47 per cent, 42 per cent, and 51 per cent respectively of all starts. Starts for young people have either flatlined or fallen since the levy.
CIPD called for a new funding distinction so that one level of public subsidy is on offer to fund apprentices up to the age of 29, with another, lower level for those aged 30 and above.
It recognised that apprenticeships can play a useful role in reskilling in cases where older workers change careers across sectors or industries, adding that there are several ways to ensure the system works in this way, but warning they all come with drawbacks.
Funding contributions from government, agencies or levy funds could simply be limited to younger apprentices, for example.
Alternatively, additional direct financial incentives could be provided for younger apprenticeship starts, which would have “considerable” budget implications. Or “comprehensive assessments” of all older apprenticeship applications could be required to deal with them on a case-by-case basis, but would be “administratively challenging”.
CIPD said the government should also consider direct financial incentives to drive apprenticeship uptake in small and medium-sized enterprises. Apprenticeship starts for smaller employers fell by nearly half (45 per cent), from 166,170 to 91,230 between 2016/17 and 2020/21 in England. In medium-sized employers, apprenticeship starts collapsed by more than half (56 per cent) from 74,800 to 32,550 over that period.
This is a “perennial” problem across all four nations. The HR body said as well as hiring incentives, all UK nations should also look at fully funding off-the-job training costs which is often a big barrier to SMEs taking on apprentices.
The report, too, backed calls for the apprenticeship levy to be reformed into a flexible skills levy so that it funds other forms of training. This is a policy idea that Labour has promised to adopt if it wins the next general election.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said it had “transformed apprenticeships” by working with thousands of employers of all sizes, to deliver more apprenticeship opportunities.
“We’ve made it easier for SMEs to take on apprentices by removing the cap on the number they can recruit,” they added. “As a government we also pay 100 per cent of training costs for the smallest employers hiring apprentices under 19.”