The truth behind the 16-18 apprenticeship problem

Falling apprenticeship numbers among 16 to 18-year-olds have come as no surprise to Peter Cobrin, from Apprenticeships England, who looks at how to stop any further declines.

So now the truth is out — government figures reveal a ten per cent fall in 16-18 apprenticeships.

Let me provide some answers as to why this is the case.

Employability skills are not embedded within and across the curriculum, 16-year-olds don’t get the message and as a result FE colleges are treated as parking lots for too many young people as local employers simply fail to engage with apprenticeships.

Add to these, the facts that too many schools are failing to fulfil their broader social obligations as they chase qualifications as the ultimate object of their existence.
Information advice and guidance has also collapsed as the government bumbles along with its host of misguided, uncoordinated, expensive and largely-ignored online initiatives, and the ending of programme led apprenticeships following a concerted media-driven campaign.

So how can firms be encouraged and incentivised to take on more 16 to 18-year-olds? And does throwing money at employers make a difference.

My view is that the Apprenticeships Grant for Employers is a great bonus for employers, but an insignificant incentive.

Any sensible employer would eagerly employ a young person if it served his business interests, as a recent survey from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills confirmed.

So why doesn’t the government respond to these motivators rather than just throwing a few quid at the problem. We know why employers hire young people — new recruits formally trained bring in new skills, it brings young blood into the company, supports upskilling of existing members of the workforce — as Morrisons and others have discovered, training one’s own ensures a better fit between the skills of employees and workplace needs and more cost effective to train one’s own employees because they may be likely to stay.

So let’s target what works. We need measures to create specific and supported pathways into work for young people, especially where labour markets are weakest.
This should be employer-led and both community and government-supported. It requires an honest understanding of why employers are resistant to employing this cohort and it means meeting these concerns.

Let’s acknowledge the risk profile of recruiting 16-year-olds and reduce or mitigate this risk.

This is a view I share with the 16-24 Alliance, whose founder members include Morrisons, Barclays, Eon, Phones4u and training provider Elmfield. They have designed and run tightly-focused employability programmes to maximise the chances of young people getting into hard-to-teach opportunities despite less than adequate qualifications.
Another key element is schools, working with local and national employers at KS4 in taking a specific role in defining employability attributes, and then putting in place programmes to develop them within and beyond the school timetable.

For example, providing access to pre-employment programme, real work placement, employability training, labour market skills, summer employability boot camps after GCSEs.

Where a school works with employers, as for example around the rightly-praised JCB Academy, in Staffordshire, the results are fantastic. One hundred apprenticeship jobs have been created as a direct result of its focus on the engineering diplomas. But the story gets better.

Despite, or I would insist, because of, its focus on vocational learning underpinning more formal academic achievement, a total of 99 per cent of the first students to receive their GCSEs at the Staffordshire academy received grades A* to C.

So when schools, employers and communities work together, we can buck the trend of decline both in terms of employment and academic achievement. And as a final point, training providers need be supported in working with this sector.

This is especially so for sub-contractors who work with the hardest to reach groups, members of whom make up the bulk of the rapidly increasing reservoir of the unemployed, and unemployable whose existence shames us all.

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  1. Paul Kelly

    Interesting article Peter. I agree with your argument. As you articulated – preparing young people, especially 16 year olds, is difficult. I get told by employers that they (school leavers) are simply not mature enough. You state a number of interventions that can improve this, not least employability skills embedded in the mainstream curriculum. What I think is underestimated is that society is different now and I’m not sure that the Apprenticeship route fits with what employers and young people want in these changing times. When I served my time as an electrical apprentice It was on a mutually loyal agreement. This has gone. In our modern age everything is disposable – even jobs – young people know this and so do employers. Also young people will never (ever) shake off the lazy, good for nothing, stereotype (which as you and I both know is wrong) therefore providers can no longer sell cohorts – Apprentices, graduates, the unemployed. We need to learn from our colleagues in recruitment agencies – selling individuals (and their backstory) at every opportunity – one young person at a time. I suppose this will contribute to the ‘risk profile of recruiting 16-year-olds and reduce or mitigate this risk’ you talk of. The IAG debacle is another area that is continually overlooked. I could write all day but I won’t. So I’ll stop with NAS tell me that we need to preserve the 1 employer – 1 learner apprenticeship scenario at all costs. I’m not so sure. Let’s rip it up and start again for a world that is fluid. The much maligned ATAs may have something to offer you know.

  2. I think the government should pick up on this view and all the other views that support everything Mr. Cobrin has written here in this article.
    Mr Cobrin is right when he says:-
    ‘For example, providing access to pre-employment programme, real work placement, employability training, labour market skills, summer employability boot camps after GCSEs.’ I wish I had a magic wand to ensure all these options are available, however I do not have one so I shall continue to campaign for the young unemployed of the UK in my own way.
    The government needs to allow schools to include in their budget, programs as mentioned in the article, instead of making more and more cutbacks to our education system.

  3. Peter Cobrin is absolutely right. Working Links ‘Learning a Living’ research supports many of his comments. We are shortly publishing research into careers advice for young people which gets to the root cause of youth unemployment.