Apprentice pay is “better than it looks on paper”, the skills minister has insisted.
FE Week quizzed Alex Burghart on the issue in the face of a cost-of-living crisis during this week’s Annual Apprenticeship Conference.
Experts, including the Low Pay Commission, recognise that many deem the minimum wage for apprentices to be “unfair” and a disincentive for those considering the programme.
Burghart said he “knows it is a difficult time” but asked people “to bear in mind a few points” which show apprentice pay isn’t as bad as some fear.
“I completely appreciate that this is a very increasingly difficult time for a lot of people across the country with increasing inflation and increasing cost of living, particularly energy costs. I know that everyone is starting to feel the squeeze,” he told FE Week.
“Obviously, when it comes to apprenticeship pay, I think there are a few things to bear in mind. The first is that it’s set by the Low Pay Commission. But the other is to remember that this is a minimum, and most apprentices will be earning more than that.”
The skills minister added that he thinks the median income for apprentices is actually closer to about £8.24 an hour.
Plus, apprentices are entitled to the minimum wage for their age if they are aged 19 or over and have completed the first year of their apprenticeship.
An apprentice aged 21 who has completed the first year of their apprenticeship, for example, is currently entitled to a minimum hourly rate of £8.36.
Burghart said: “Whilst that’s still difficult for some people, it [apprentice pay] is better than it looks on paper.”
The Low Pay Commission produces a report every year to set national minimum wage rates.
Its report for 2021, published in December, pointed out that the latest growth in median pay for apprentices has been driven by the fall in the number of apprentices doing lower-level apprenticeships.
But the commissioners said the volume of evidence over a period of years has indicated “widespread dissatisfaction” with the level of the apprentice rate.
They added that unions, employers and other groups repeated the message that the apprentice rate did not ensure a decent standard of living for young people; left them struggling to cover basic living costs; and could cause hardship and distress.
The report also pointed out that underpayment of even the national minimum wage for apprentices “continues to be a problem across all ages” as identified by the government’s Apprenticeship Pay Survey, which was last published in January 2020 for the 2018/19 academic year.
Research into the “reasons for non-completion” in apprenticeships was also published by the Department for Education in 2019 and found that “offer of a paid job” was the third most common reason for apprentices dropping out. “Apprenticeship did not pay high enough” was another common reason.
A campaign called Back the Future was launched last year and called for a “decent” minimum apprentice wage of at least £6.25 an hour to be implemented.