Employers renew calls for youth ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ 

The idea was first proposed by government in 2009 and resurfaced in 2020 before being quickly dropped

The idea was first proposed by government in 2009 and resurfaced in 2020 before being quickly dropped

20 May 2024, 13:41

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Employers have renewed calls for an “apprenticeship guarantee” to reverse a collapse in apprenticeship starts for young people.

Then prime minister Boris Johnson hit national media headlines in 2020 after he backed such a proposal put forward by former skills minister Robert Halfon.

But, as experts predicted at the time and as Labour accused Johnson of being “deceptive”, the idea was never fleshed out by the government and was soon forgotten.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has brought the idea back into play in a new report published today that highlights a stark drop in apprenticeships for young people, as employers rebadge training for existing staff as apprenticeships to make use of their levy contributions.

But questions remain over how apprenticeships can be “guaranteed”, given that apprenticeships are jobs and government cannot force employers to offer them.

Here’re the key takeaways from today’s report.

The case for an ‘apprenticeship guarantee’

Dramatic fall among young people…

CIPD’s report included a survey of 2,000 employers, which found more than half (60 per cent) think that the primary purpose of apprenticeships should be supporting young people to enter the workplace. Just 15 per cent of employers said apprenticeships should primarily be used to develop existing staff.

Despite this, government data shows a 41 per cent fall in apprenticeship starts for the under 19s and a 36 per cent decline for those aged 19 to 24 years old between 2015/16 and 2022/23.

There has been a well-documented shift in the share of apprenticeship starts for those aged 25 and older over this period. And while all age groups have seen large declines in level 2, the dramatic shift to level 4 and above apprenticeships has “clearly favoured those aged 25 and above”, CIPD’s report said.

It claimed: “Apprenticeships in England now predominantly attract individuals already active in the labour market rather than those transitioning from school to work, in contrast to many other countries.”

…SME starts also ‘collapse’

Figures also show that between 2016/17 and 2020/21 apprenticeship starts for small employers decreased by nearly half (−45 per cent), and in medium-sized enterprises, starts dropped by more than half (−56 per cent).

Larger employers also saw a decline, but this was notably less pronounced (−14 per cent).

CIPD said the “collapse” in apprenticeship starts among SMEs has “undermined” opportunities for young people as it is this group of employers who are more likely to take on young apprentices and train people with lower qualification levels. 

Data also shows the introduction of the levy coincides with the number of people undertaking apprenticeships from the most deprived areas of England, falling from 250,000 to 150,000 between 2015/16 and 2022/23.

Employers ‘incentivised’ to rebadge training

CIPD also repeats warnings, raised in the past by Ofsted and multiple think tanks, that employers have been “incentivised” to rebadge existing training courses as apprenticeships to utilise their apprenticeship levy money.

Today’s survey showed 54 per cent of organisations paying the levy “admitted they had converted existing training activity into apprenticeships programmes to claim back their allowance”.

Backing for ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ – but is it possible?

To combat these trends, nine in ten (89 per cent) of employers in CIPD’s survey supported the HR body’s recommendation of an “apprenticeship guarantee” for young people up to the age of 24. The policy would “ensure that a level 2 or level 3 apprenticeship place is available for every young person who wants one and meets the minimum entry requirements”.

However, the practicality of implementing the proposal is still in question. Apprenticeships are jobs and government cannot force employers to offer them.

In 2009, the Labour government attempted to establish an “apprentice guarantee” through the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act, but the plans ultimately fell through. 

A recent paper titled ‘The Economy 2030 Inquiry’ explained that the 2009 act placed a duty on the CEO of the Skills Funding Agency to ensure an offer of an apprenticeship place to all qualified 16–18-year-old applicants.

The paper said the young person could choose an apprenticeship at either level 2 or level 3 from apprenticeship frameworks in two sectors (which were to be defined as those covered by a Sector Skills Council), plus they must be “suitably qualified” with GCSE English and maths and be placed within a “reasonable travel areas”.

The guarantee was not to come fully into force until 2013. But, after the change of government in 2010, that part of the act was repealed. 

Authors of the 2030 inquiry said this proposal “remains the best vision of the system we need to create for people up to age 24”, but noted issues around funding, supply and low English and maths pass rates.

In May 2020 the idea of an apprenticeship guarantee resurfaced after then-education select committee chair Robert Halfon asked Boris Johnson during the government’s Liaison Committee if he would “consider introducing a guarantee offering every young person from 16 to 25 a guaranteed apprenticeship providing they can get their qualifications from level 2 right up to degree level”.

Johnson responded positively and then reaffirmed his liking of the idea during a televised Covid briefing days later, telling the nation that “it is going to be vital that we guarantee apprenticeships for young people”.

Then shadow skills minister Toby Perkins labelled the commitment as a “deception” at the time, saying he was “concerned” that young people were being given “false reassurance” by Boris Johnson at a time when they are facing “a very difficult job market”.

The government has never since said it would adopt an “apprenticeship guarantee” as policy and the idea appeared to be quickly dropped. 

Newly elected mayor of the West Midlands, Richard Parker, included an “apprenticeship guarantee” for young people in his manifesto, but didn’t detail how it would be implemented.

After publishing today’s report, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said: “The evidence in this report shows clearly that young people most need and benefit from apprenticeships, and that the erosion of this pathway has had a negative impact on social mobility for the most disadvantaged. The introduction of an apprenticeship guarantee would help reclaim apprenticeships primarily for young people and reverse the decline in opportunities for them.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “A guarantee for young people to be able to access a good apprenticeship and more targeted use of the levy to train older staff would result in more people benefitting from the skills they need.”

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  1. This is what happens when the government doesn’t have a national skills strategy and creates a funding system that pretty much anyone can access (and God forbid that new providers are barred because they don’t have a delivery track record!). It should be a no brainer that apprenticeships are focussed first and foremost on young people, but a perverse definition of ‘quality’ (level 4 and above) by policy makers has led to apprenticeship funding being used for training that should never have been funded through the apprenticeship system. And anyone who still believes that the system is ’employer led’ rather than ‘government led’ is deluding themselves. The design of the system, and its wholly foreseeable problems, are down to the government and the government alone.

  2. Michael Lomas

    Perhaps those large employers paying and in many cases losing levy to clack-back should impose a small percentage of the levy for 16 – 24 year old’s salary for level 2 – 3 apprenticeship programmes. At present when we look at organisations such as the NHS, with currently 100,000 vacancies nationally who spend their levy degree opportunities for existing staff rather than recruiting a new workforce.

  3. The levy was little more than an accounting device to move things around the UK plc balance sheet and transfer responsibility away from government while maintaining control of the flow of funding.

    Pre levy the apprenticeship budget was set by government from general taxation.

    The levy was then set up and sold to employers as a hypothecated tax (a tax that is spent on what it is collected for). Hey presto, you have an income stream, plus expenditure and retain control of the rules of how the money is spent.

    Since then, government have increasingly used it as a cash cow, not putting all the levy tax take into the apprenticeship budget and putting rules in place to guarantee the budget could not be overspent, creating a surplus for the Treasury running to several billion.

    Something has to change, but what’s on offer is more of the same from the current government and even more of the same from the opposition.

    (pretty standard now to see the AOC commenting on an article on apprenticeships, they deliver almost 20% of starts after all)

  4. Albert Wright

    No Government can Guarantee a young person an Apprenticeship, especially an apprenticeship in a small or micro business for a disadvantaged young person loiving in a deprived area.

    The best they can do is to encourage employers and young people to offer and take up the offer.

    WE should not be surprised at the fall in numbers for 16 to 18 year olds, particularly at level 2, because more are staying on at school or college to study full time rather than go into emplyment and small businesses find taking on an apprentice too bureaucratic and difficult to find the right people..

    For 19 to 25 year olds, too many are applying for University rather than trying to sign up for a level 3 apprenticeship. Of those that do consider getting an apprenticeship, they cannot find the one they want locally or don’t have the necessary grades in English and maths.

    Apprenticeship pay is still to low to interest the more able and for small employers the financial deal is not generous enough.

  5. Andrew Turner

    I can’t believe this is being bounced around again.
    There aren’t enough Apprenticeship vacancies nationally to even touch a small percentage of those young people who are in scope of the ‘guarantee’.
    Political hogwash (that is rolled out usually before elections).