Sir Keir Starmer’s pledge last week that a future Labour government will work to ensure vocational training holds the same prestige as academic courses is crucial. But changing people’s attitudes towards vocational routes such as apprenticeships counts for little if apprentices fail to complete their training.
Against the economically tumultuous backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, an average apprenticeship offers a mere £5.28 an hour. While this number has gradually risen from £4.81 in March 2022, this approximate nine per cent increase does little to support apprentices under pressure from the 16.9 per cent increase in the cost of food and non-alcoholic beverages that occurred in the lead up to December 2022. Apprenticeships are therefore becoming less appealing and in some cases even unsustainable. Many are dropping out to start jobs where the minimum wage is higher.
Last year, and in a throw-back to the target-driven, top-down system of government that became the hallmark of New Labour, then-minister for skills and apprenticeships, Alex Burghart announced an ambitious new 67 per cent target completion rate for apprenticeships.
Despite the target, completion rates continue to go in the wrong direction. Recent figures put them at 53 per cent – down from 58 per cent in 2019/20. Apprenticeship starts have also plummeted by over 160,000 in absolute terms since 2015/16. So, there are fewer going in, and even fewer coming out.
Various factors catalyse low completion rates, but a major factor is undoubtedly the apprenticeship minimum wage. For example, the current £5.28 an hour apprenticeship salary compares poorly to an entry-level hourly wage of £11.02 at Tesco.
Adding fuel to the fire, some employers even fail to pay that. One in five (21 per cent) of the 202 employers named and shamed by the government for breaching minimum wage laws in 2022-23 additionally failed to pay their apprentices the lowest rate.
Last week, the government missed an open goal to incentivise employers to pay more by omitting apprenticeship wages from its annual league table of the ‘top 100 apprenticeship employers’. Thus, with the cost of living spiralling, many apprentices are instead lured away by the prospect of more lucrative work elsewhere.
But while apprentices should be paid more, they must also do all they can to complete their training. Dropouts are hugely frustrating for employers and providers alike. Not only does their hard work go to waste, it also negatively impacts completion rates.
Often, employers are too lenient in granting apprentices leave from their apprenticeship. The learner’s subsequent failure to return to their training is also a driver behind low completion rates. For apprenticeships to hold the same parity of esteem as academic routes, they should be subject to similar expectations in terms of attendance and processes for requesting leave as other educational courses.
Employers and providers must also provide their apprentices with an effective support structure. We have found that providing additional support for our apprentices with issues such as mental health helps to reduce the rate of absence. As a result, we have a lower-than-average dropout rate.
The final issue that deters people from starting and completing apprenticeships is the 12-month minimum duration. Heralded by ministers as a way of introducing greater rigour to the system, the reality is that it’s led to the unnecessary extension of important but low-paid apprenticeships in areas such as hospitality. At the same time, the policy has created the false impression to some businesses that more technical training can be completed in 12 months.
The duration of apprenticeships should be less uniform and instead adapted to the needs of the industry’s technical requirements and those of the skill itself.
There is no silver bullet to addressing the high apprenticeship dropout rate. Instead, the solution requires a coordinated effort by government, employers, providers and learners alike.
Whoever is in power, we’ll have to go way beyond a 67 per cent completion rate before we can even begin to talk about the long dreamed-of parity of esteem. But by having a wholesale review of pay, conditions and minimum duration periods, and by introducing a greater support structure for learners, I’m confident this goal is an achievable one.