Improving apprenticeship achievement rates starts with showing how much we value them

New research from AELP with City & Guilds makes it clear that the apprenticeships are not perceived as valuable enough to retain learners, writes Jane Hickie

New research from AELP with City & Guilds makes it clear that the apprenticeships are not perceived as valuable enough to retain learners, writes Jane Hickie

11 Mar 2023, 5:00

At next week’s 9th Annual Apprenticeship Conference in Birmingham, we’ll be launching our latest research: Raising the standard: Sectoral approaches to raising apprenticeship achievement rates, which we’ve been working on jointly with City & Guilds. The publication explores the underlying detail behind headline achievement rates, but also makes it clear that we need to do far more to increase the perceived value of apprenticeships.

Easing skills shortages

At AELP’s national conference last June, then-skills minister, Alex Burghart announced his desire to see apprenticeship achievement rates reach 67 per cent, up from 51.8 per cent in 2020/21. That’s an ambitious goal, requiring some real thought about how the skills sector works with government, employers and learners to achieve it.

Last year’s City & Guilds report, Great Jobs also prompted this study, given its focus on skills shortages in essential industrial sectors across the UK. That report showed that half of the jobs in the UK are categorised as ‘essential’ by the government, and predicts the number of roles in key industries will grow in the next five years. This is despite employers facing acute skills shortages already.

Apprenticeships could make a significant contribution to tackling these skill shortages, but the achievement rate is still a critical problem. So Raising the standard investigates the factors affecting the withdrawal of apprentices from providers’ perspectives through interviews, but warns we must also look at improving the value and currency of apprenticeships themselves.

Reducing withdrawals

Through interviews and focus groups, our research identified a variety of sectoral and cross-sectoral issues around why apprenticeship achievements are not all they could be, and we explore these in some detail.

Apprentices can withdraw because they receive a better-paid job offer, or find faster options such as bootcamps and/or NVQs to get the qualifications they need to get the job they want. Some potential apprentices never start at all because of the way the compulsory education system appears to prioritise higher education and academia as a preferred route structurally, portraying apprenticeships as a lower-level or second-rate option.

If we aren’t doing this, how can we expect other employers to?

But it seems that fundamentally the underlying reason for apprenticeship withdrawal is very often simply that the thought of completing the apprenticeship is not valued as much as the other factors affecting this decision – competing pay offers, better conditions elsewhere, more suitable learning environments in other settings and so forth.

Providers and employers both know how much completing an apprenticeship can positively enhance future job and learning prospects. Yet it seems this point is still not made clearly enough – particularly in the wider labour market, which does not regularly cite an apprenticeship as a requirement for a vacant job role. This means apprentices do not see clearly the benefits of completion.

Modelling the change we need

Nearly half of apprentices withdraw before completion. This is a serious problem which compounds skills shortages and must be addressed as quickly as possible. Our report contains fifteen recommendations outlining how we can do this, alongside some further reflections on sector-specific issues that came to our attention.

However, almost all of the factors and themes can ultimately be reduced to a single overarching conclusion and recommendation: much more work needs to be done to raise the perceived benefit and value of apprenticeship study.

We need to spread the message about their value much further and ensure that the time and effort employers put into training apprentices is reflected in their wider recruitment strategies. This is even the case in roles advertised within the skills sector itself – and if we aren’t doing this, how can we expect other employers to?

There is a strong need to show more clearly the value and benefit of taking an apprenticeship, differentiating this from other options in order to motivate and incentivise learners to keep pursuing them – as well as evidencing their value in real-world labour market situations.

I hope the release of this report will add some evidence to an important challenge for the skills sector and will reinforce the need for us to be clearer – with actions as well as words – about the importance and value of apprenticeships, and the very real benefits they bring to both individuals and employers.

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