Apprenticeships and coronavirus – time to focus on young people?

By Emily Jones


03 06 2020


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Provisional data released by the Department for Education last week highlights the stark reality of the impact that coronavirus will have on apprenticeships. Providers reported a total of 13,020 apprenticeship starts between 23 March and 30 April 2020 – a 49% drop compared to this time last year. While the data should be treated with caution due to the effect the pandemic may have had on reporting, these figures indicate of the scale of the challenge ahead.

This is particularly bad news for young people, with the number of starts for 16-18 year olds tumbling by 74% and Level 2 apprenticeships falling by 70% compared to this time last year. The number of starts in sectors most likely to take on young apprentices – such as Construction, Retail and Leisure – fell particularly sharply. These sectors are some of those most affected by coronavirus and will take time to recover.

While the crisis is new, we must remember that the problem of declining apprenticeship starts for young people is not. Last year, 16-18 year olds represented only a quarter of apprenticeship starts. While the total volume of apprenticeships has fallen in recent years, there has been an increase at Level 4+. This may be good news for filling employers’ skills gaps at higher levels but it hasn’t helped young people’s entry to the labour market, with only 36% of Level 4+ opportunities taken up by under 25s last year.

While the crisis is new, we must remember that the problem of declining apprenticeship starts for young people is not.

Young people will be among those hit hardest by the economic impact of the pandemic. Learning and Work Institute research has shown that young people are much more likely to work in the ‘shutdown sectors’ hit hardest by the crisis, and many young people will be leaving education this year, facing a very challenging labour market.  It’s important now more than ever that urgent action is taken to ensure they progress through employment, education and training.

Apprenticeships have a key role to play but recent reforms, particularly the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, have led many employers to focus on upskilling existing staff and older workers, rather than investing in the skills of young people. Last year, the National Audit Office raised concern that this has created deadweight in the system, with some employers using apprenticeships to subsidise training that they would ordinarily have paid for themselves. The NAO recommended that the DfE and ESFA ‘should assess whether they would secure better value for money by prioritising certain types of apprenticeship’. The current crisis could be an opportunity to reassess apprenticeship policy, and refocus funding to ensure young people are prioritised. (We suggested some of the ways this could be done in our paper ‘Bridging the gap’ last year.)

The prime minister has committed to exploring the idea of an ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ for every 16-25 year old – a suggestion put forward by Robert Halfon MP at the government’s Liaison Committee last week. Policymakers should consider how this could be used to address rather than exacerbate wider inequalities, for example the underrepresentation of BAME apprentices, apprentices with learning difficulties or women in STEM. We also know there are differences in the take up of ‘higher value’ apprenticeships in disadvantaged areas. Efforts to address this would link well to the government’s levelling up agenda.

The role of employers is of course central to any changes. While the need for more apprenticeships for young people may be greater than ever, employers’ ability to provide opportunities has never been less certain. We therefore need decisive action from the government, along with investment, to incentivise employers to provide these opportunities, so that we can protect the futures of young people.

Emily Jones, head of research, Learning and Work Institute