The government must act now to save apprenticeships

30 May 2022, 6:00

It’s the first time in our organisation’s 50-year history that the number of apprenticeship vacancies is outstripping applications, writes Mike Driscoll

We have almost reached the end of another challenging academic year – and what a year it has been!

We have witnessed the coronavirus pandemic come, go, come back and then go again.

Even today, with restrictions lifted, the virus threatens the continuity of apprenticeship training, with staff illness and ongoing absences among our apprenticeship community.

As the weather improves, so does our optimism for better times ahead. We look to the future to tackle any emerging signs of reduced interest in engineering apprenticeships among young people.

But unless action is taken by the government to support employers and providers who are re-engaging with schools on quality career guidance, apprenticeship schemes may become a bit of a Cinderella story.

They are at risk of disappearing among the plethora of other educational routes that young people can choose to take. Has anyone else spotted this?

At a recent internal meeting, I asked our pastoral team to verify uptake across our apprenticeship schemes.

Southampton Engineering Training Association (SETA) advertise apprenticeship vacancies in partnership with our employers, and there is growing demand from employers for recruiting apprentices as they rebuild their businesses.

But the pastoral team’s feedback was, frankly, not great, and I was flabbergasted to learn that the number of apprenticeship applications received for this current academic year was well down on the previous year.

I sought clarification only to be told that in recent years, for every one vacancy advertised, SETA would typically receive eight applications.

However, this year only a few applications have been received per vacancy and in some cases, no applications have been received. This is the first time in our 50-year history at SETA that the number of apprenticeship vacancies pledged by employers outstrips the number of applications from candidates.

In some cases, no applications have been received

Feeling somewhat perplexed, I began to research what other providers have experienced and made some phone calls.

Exactly the same is being reported across other providers within our network: the number of applications being received are far fewer than in recent years, and interest among young people has almost diminished.

Not good news at all.

The cause? That’s a tough one.

The pandemic forced enormous pressure on all education providers to rapidly reform education and training systems and safeguard the achievement of qualifications. Career advice and guidance for young people had to take a back seat.

The solution? That’s a tough one too.

Like many providers, SETA has begun to re-engage with schools and while we work hard to “dampen the flames” from the pandemic, more fires are being lit.

Sources of ignition appear to include the introduction of new qualifications, T levels, traineeships and Kickstart schemes which are attractive alternatives to apprenticeships.

Employers are still recalibrating their business plans and desperately need more young people to fill apprenticeship vacancies now and those planned in the future.

But with spiralling operational costs in both industry and education, the impact of what can be reasonably achieved to address this issue is limited. Also, without opportunities to work jointly to provide quality career guidance we risk being unsuccessful.

Could the solution therefore be to harness funds within the apprenticeship levy somehow? Can employers and providers be given the opportunity to design and rebuild high-quality, meaningful career advice in partnerships with schools?

Millions of pounds have been invested designing standards, endorsed by employers, professional institutions and providers. Perhaps “tapping into” the very system designed to encourage apprenticeship training is a way forward to promoting the benefits of apprenticeship training to all.

The engineering sector desperately needs young people to engage with apprenticeship training and join the sector.

So the UK desperately needs the government to recognise this issue and support our fight to save apprenticeship training from becoming an upskill exercise only attractive for existing employees.



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  1. I do sympathise with Mike’s organisation. In the past I have believed that if we can encourage more and more employers to take part in apprenticeships we can fill those posts with eager and willing recruits.

    The jewel in the apprenticeship is degree apprenticeships. They are a very attractive option where apprentices are not required to take out a student loan, apprentices earn an attractive salary and gain valuable work experience. In my experience there is still strong demand for degree apprenticeships. Birmingham City University recently had over 200 applications for one of our new degree apprenticeships.

    Going forward we need to reduce the number of number of vacancies paying the apprentice minimum wage, these are not only affecting recruitment but also retention.

    As Mike suggests I believe that the apprenticeship family need urgent Government support to look at the low take up of apprenticeships; particularly in skill shortage areas like engineering.

    Thank you Mike for brining this topic into the public arena for further discussion and the need for urgent Government support.