Rising apprenticeship numbers should be welcomed, but……..

1 min read

Earlier this month the Department for Education (DfE) released data about new apprenticeships and the figures relating to the engineering and technology sector made for interesting reading.

According to analysis undertaken by EngineeringUK, engineering-related apprenticeship starts have increased at a greater rate than all sector subject areas, up by 25.8% on 2020/21, compared to an 8.6% increase across all sector subject areas.

Despite this growth, however, engineering-related apprenticeship starts are still down by over 5.5% since 2018/19, and way down by 12.3% since 2016/17.

According to Beatrice Barleon, Head of Policy & Public Affairs at EngineeringUK, while this data shows a step in the right direction, the acute skills shortage and the pressing need for more engineers to support the UK’s net zero ambitions means that the UK will need to see an ‘exponential growth of apprenticeships starts (and finishes!) in the engineering sector’.

The finishing aspect is an important one, because a recent study - “No Train, No Gain” – produced by EDSK, an education thinktank, found that almost half of young people signed up for apprenticeships subsequently abandon them.

Worryingly, many of those who drop out were found to become terminally disillusioned with what they were being offered.

Why that’s the case is obvious. Unlike Germany, where firms offering apprenticeships must conform to detailed national guidelines in the UK there are no such guidelines which means that companies can offer as much, or as little, training as they think.

The EDSK report found that government-funded “apprentices” were being hired to make tea or to answer phones in offices, so is it any wonder that so many are disillusioned with apprenticeships?

Even where meaningful training can take place, more than half of apprentices said they are not allocated the mandatory one day a week off the job to receive training.

So, while the government and industry – where business investment in skills has fallen massively - talk about growing the numbers of apprenticeships what is the point if their quality is poor, letting down a generation of young workers?

We need a national apprenticeship inspectorate that’s capable of enforcing mandatory requirements, and those apprenticeships that fail to meet those standards should be removed from the system.

Apprenticeships, if delivered effectively, can be of real value to both the companies involved and to the young people taking part, but in far too many cases this just simply isn’t the case.

Consequently, with little regulation, the idea of apprenticeships is being undermined just when we need to be investing in more skills if we want to deliver the high-skill and high-wage economy everyone wants.