Traineeships are the government’s latest weapon in the fight against youth unemployment, but, asks Mike Hopkins, what hope do trainees really have of a job in the end and is the free labour offer, that is inherent to the programme, open to abuse?

There appears to have been some frustration at a slow uptake on traineeships in colleges and a belief the sector is therefore missing an opportunity.

But Middlesbrough College is delivering traineeships as part of the Employer Ownership Pilot.

Trainees are benefitting and the relationship with the employer is excellent.

But I recognise the sector does have some well-founded concerns. So what are these?

I’m worried some employers may use and abuse traineeships.

It’s true traineeships provide another entry point into work.

However, how many trainees will enter into a traineeship with high expectations, when in reality there may be little scope for employment at the end of it?

When does it become more about the provider hoovering additional funds, than a genuine route to prosperous and sustainable employment?

How much more disillusioned might trainees be if they arrive at the end a traineeship with nowhere to go?

Traineeships allow employers to work trainees without paying them and this may provide a mechanism employers implement as an alternative to apprenticeships or paid employment, or as a substitute for employment.

So, how do we protect our young people from exploitation?

While any initiative to develop opportunities for work experience is to be applauded and is doubtless well-intentioned, I would sound a note of caution.

Many providers, including colleges, have invested heavily in securing, for example, work experience for learners.

However, to use an old metaphor, there are ‘only so many times we can go back to the same well’.

There is a presumption that employers are ready and able to be the agents of social change that government wills them to be.

But I am concerned about the weight of expectation and the capacity of employers in the current economic climate to engage with traineeships.

We know there is a fine line between unpaid work experience, that offers skill development, and exploitation”

Employers are being urged to invest more in apprentices, but there is a danger of traineeships becoming an ‘instead of’ rather than an ‘as well as’ option.

That said, there are progressive employers engaging providers in the development of schemes.

They should be commended and perhaps better recognised or rewarded for this.

Many employers lay claim to corporate social responsibility, but how many are actively rewarded? How does and should government incentivise employers around this?

For example, some would argue the motivation to pursue and secure Investors in People, ISO 9001 is as much about the ‘badge’ and having it as part of the corporate uniform, so you can tick a box in a pre-qualification questionnaire. as part of a competitive tendering exercise.

Would it be a bad thing if employers perceived that being able to tick another box around their commitment to work experience, traineeships, apprenticeships was a pre-requisite in competitive tender situations?

Traineeships have the potential to add to boost post-16 skills development, if they are well-funded and credible.

But the macro-economic ambition of government to rebalance the economy and return to somewhere near full, prosperous and sustainable employment, is just as important.

It’s not the fault of young people that the economy is flat and faltering.

For colleges, we know there is a fine line between unpaid work experience, that offers skill development, and exploitation.

Many young people now find themselves in a state of economic duress and may feel compelled to accept such hours and working conditions.

It’s important then that the sector uses the key principles of high quality and inclusion when judging the merits of different initiatives.

Mike Hopkins, chief executive of Middlesbrough/Gateshead College Federation.



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  1. I fully agree with the points Mike makes about work experience and the need to distinguish between experiences that offer skill development rather than exploitation. That is why we have developed the National Quality Standard for Work Experience and the Frameworks that support it.

    It is important that those who organise work experience not only ensure it is good quality but can also clearly and independently demonstrate this to young people, employers and the public.

    If the sector does not take collective action to demonstrate quality now the easy option for employers in the face of adverse media and pressure group focus, will be to stop offering any work experience opportunities at all.