What will it take to deliver an apprenticeship guarantee for young people

A new report shows those who say such a guarantee can’t be delivered in an employer-led system underestimate appetite for change

A new report shows those who say such a guarantee can’t be delivered in an employer-led system underestimate appetite for change

25 May 2024, 5:00

Earlier this week we released a report, working with Youth Futures Foundation, calling on the next government to introduce an apprenticeship guarantee for young people up to the age of 24. The guarantee would ensure that a Level 2 or Level 3 apprenticeship place is available for every qualified candidate. This was previously set out in the 2009 Apprenticeship Act but was later repealed.  

One of the main barriers to overcome in implementing an apprenticeship guarantee is ensuring the availability of sufficient opportunities for young people. Critics have previously contended that in an employer-led system this would not be possible, unlike in other parts of the education system where government is simply able to just expand places. 

Yet, while we recognise this critical delivery barrier, our research suggests that there is both significant employer support for the introduction of such a guarantee and willingness to provide additional youth apprenticeship places under one. Nine in ten employers (89 per cent) would support an apprenticeship guarantee for young people, and 60 per cent of employers would be able to offer an additional apprenticeship opportunity for a young person.

However, it would be unrealistic to rely on the goodwill of employers alone and further action would be required to unlock more apprenticeship opportunities for young people. In particular, to boost the provision of apprenticeship places in small and medium sized businesses, who are much more likely to provide apprenticeships for young people, as well as provide apprenticeship places at lower levels.

Our research has highlighted the concerning drop in SME engagement in apprenticeships since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy and other reforms to the system, which have driven the overall collapse in starts as well as the fall in intermediate apprenticeships. Restoring SME apprenticeship starts to pre-levy levels and unlocking additional opportunities would be required to realise the vision of an apprenticeship guarantee.

To do this the next government should shift to demand-led youth apprenticeship funding, for SMEs, and introduce targeted financial incentives for both small employers and apprenticeship providers to boost youth opportunities.

The next government should shift to demand-led funding

Alongside enhanced funding and targeted financial incentives there is also a need to build the appetite and capability of small firms to engage in apprenticeships and skills investment more broadly, as well as to help them navigate a complex skills system.

To do this we need enhanced partnerships and business support at a local level. Combined authorities can play a leading role here, while Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) have the potential to be a key actor but require long-term and sustainable funding if they are to fulfil this potential and make the required impact.

As well as action to boost SME engagement the next government should reform the apprenticeship levy into a flexible skills levy with at least half of the levy money ring-fenced for young people and the remainder for wider workforce skills needs.

Our research also highlighted that 54 per cent of those that pay into the levy admitted to rebadging existing training schemes as apprenticeships as a way to claim their allowance. Establishing a more flexible skills levy would remove the incentive for employers to reclassify training as apprenticeships. Additionally, it would enable the provision of accredited training choices that better suit the skill development needs of existing employees.

Finally, as part of a guarantee, there is a need for additional support for those young individuals who are not yet ready to embark on an apprenticeship programme, restoring a crucial initial step on the path to opportunity.

That is why we are calling on the next government to introduce a dedicated pre-apprenticeship programme which should include a weekly bursary, similar to that offered in Wales, to boost participation.  

While a youth apprenticeship guarantee would be challenging to deliver, our research has clearly demonstrated an appetite and a willingness by employers to rebalance the apprenticeship system towards young people.

We need the next government to match this ambition with the necessary vision and funding to transform the apprenticeship and wider skills system so that it delivers much better outcomes for learners, organisations and the economy.

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