Mark Cosens MA FIEP, Founder, Cosens Consult

What is a Traineeship? 

Programmes to help young people who want to access an Apprenticeship or job, but who don’t yet have the appropriate skills or experience. 

They consist of three mandatory components: a work placement; English and maths training, and; work preparation (or employability) training.

They support 16-24 year olds (or 25 year olds with an education, health and care [EHC] plan) who: 

  • Are unemployed;
  • Have little to no work experience and are focused on employment or an Apprenticeship; or 
  • Have been assessed as having potential for either within 12 months.

Revival

For over a decade, Traineeships have been in and out of favour with the government. Currently, they are in. This summer, the Chancellor launched a new, initial £111 million investment (for next year), with the aim to triple starts (to over 40,000 in 2020/21).

The tender competition is well underway.

Yet, renewed government interest seems counterintuitive to the fact that there were fewer than 15,000 Traineeship starts in 2018/19. It also runs counter to the conventional wisdom that led 68% of all FE Colleges to decline to deliver a single Traineeship in the same year.

So what has changed? And is the government’s new-found faith in a flatlining programme justified?

How are Traineeships funded?

To deliver Traineeships, training providers are funded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). For 16-18s, funding is from the Study Programme Budget, for 19-24s it comes from the Adult Education Budget (AEB).

Traineeships remains a national programme (not devolved like some AEB programmes), so 19+ Traineeship funding will be subject to procurement (via AEB) and 16-18 funding will lag i.e. there will be no money for providers until the following year. This means that a training provider could find themselves able to run a cohort, but unable to access the funding. Or perhaps able to access funding for one age group but not the other.

In addition, existing 16-18 providers can get an in-year 100% growth mechanism from the ESFA (if they are delivering their Traineeship profiles), but for existing 16-18 Traineeship providers there's an immediate competitive disadvantage.

With millions of pounds of new funding announced and nearly 4000 providers on the Register of Training Organisations (ROTO), the tender will be fiercely competitive. Therefore, the ESFA will have to prioritise its allocation. Given the youth unemployment crisis upon us, it isn’t hard to imagine the ESFA favouring existing 16-18 Traineeship providers. The agency is also giving extra help to 16-18 Study Programme providers to deliver Traineeships as ‘new entrants’. So, along with strategically important FE Colleges, these providers are likely to be high on the funding priority list.

Are Traineeships good for Trainees?

Announcing the new funding, the Chancellor claimed it “proven” that Traineeships deliver results. He was probably referring to last year’s performance figures, which indicated that 75% of Trainees move on to work or further study within a year of completing their programme. On this measure, from the government’s point of view, they perform well.

But will this continue post Covid-19, when employers are shedding jobs and battling for survival? Perhaps it will depend on the sector. Retail and hospitality are popular for Traineeships, but they are reeling from the impact of ‘lockdowns’ and other measures imposed to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. However, the health and care sectors are also relatively fertile recruiting grounds for Trainees, where demand may be stronger.

Some ‘Pros’ and ‘Cons’ of Traineeships

Pros

The government is investing additional millions, so there will be funding, publicity and systemic backing.

A clear focus on young people is good. This cohort is particularly vulnerable to a turbulent labour market. Young people are the future and they enjoy a lot of goodwill and attention from citizens, government, employers and providers. This helps the government to mobilise employer engagement and publicity campaigns (although these may only be around priority sectors, such as construction, health and care).

Traineeships do offer good preparation for an Apprenticeship or other employment. We know that: employers want work experience (young people are in a catch 22 situation otherwise); English and maths competence is widely lacking (and also in demand from employers), and; employability training is particularly important for young people to understand what is expected of them as they start their working lives.

Traineeships can last a minimum of six weeks to a year, although most last less than six months, which makes them flexible, accessible and attractive to employers from a duration point of view.

The ESFA has announced that Trainees can now split their work placements across two employers, with each placement lasting at least two weeks with each employer. For Trainees receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit work placements can now last between 70 and 240 hours or be extended "if the learner is offered an Apprenticeship place."

The ESFA is intending to award contracts in January 2021, so there is time for providers to get ready.

Cons

Traineeships have poor brand awareness and the programme is widely misunderstood by employers (and even by skills providers). For them to really take off, government will need to do a lot (alongside providers) to make them credible to employers.

You have to ask why so few FE Colleges and Independent Training Providers (ITPs) deliver Traineeships. One reason until now, has been that only young people without a prior Level 2 were eligible. While this restriction is being removed, the ‘sell’ to employers is still hard, because Trainees are the least qualified young people in the skills/labour market.

Another reason is bad press e.g. Halfords stopped delivery of Traineeships after newspapers criticised them for offering unpaid work experience. This may have put other employers off as well.

Progression is a challenge. The pandemic has had a significant negative impact in this regard. Young people are signing up for Traineeships as a route to Apprenticeships, but the number of Apprenticeships available is plummeting. Many providers will need to maintain relationships with Apprenticeship employers, involve them in Traineeships, and convert Trainees into employed Apprentices. But this is challenging for Apprenticeship providers, and even harder for providers who don't deliver Apprenticeships.

Traineeships could also clash with the £2 billion Kick Start scheme, which will get more funding and publicity. Kick Start placements pay a young person’s wages for up to six months at the national minimum wage, include an employer incentive of £1500 and offer a payment (to employers or intermediaries) to cover costs (of £300 per Kick Starter). Traineeships are only employer incentivised at £1000 per Trainee, and the young person is unpaid for their work placement.

So while employers don't pay Trainees during their work placement, they perhaps don't get a young person who is quite so engaged as they would with a paid Kick Starter (or Apprentice). However, Kick Start placements have to last for at least six months, so they are lengthier and less flexible than Traineeships. Nevertheless, employers get a lot more to take on a Kick Starter than a Trainee.

Another potentially more attractive option for employers is a young Apprentice (under 25), for whom they receive a £2000 incentive and National Insurance breaks. The incentive alone for an Apprentice is more than double that for a Trainee, although employers need to pay their Apprentice at least the minimum Apprenticeship wage.

Perceived employability is also an issue. Many employers might think that a Trainee is someone who failed to be accepted as an Apprentice (even though this isn't always true, or fair). The government is expanding Traineeship eligibility to include young people with a Level 3, which might help to counter this, but it will take time to get that message over to many employers.

A minimum funding level of £250K also means that the tender competition is going to be really fierce. Most smaller providers will miss out, and it is estimated that up to 90% of funding applicants will not get any of the new Traineeships funding.

Three Acid Tests

1. If your brother or sister, niece or nephew, grandson or granddaughter were considering a Traineeship, would you encourage them to go ahead?

Perhaps it depends on whether you believe an unpaid placement is worth the experience gained and possible ‘foot in the door’ with an employer. You might want to suggest paid alternatives. Although 75% of young people are shown to progress into work within one year of completing a Traineeship, many are not employed by the same employer that received your loved one’s free labour for the duration of the work placement.

2. If your family business were recruiting entry-level staff, would you choose a Trainee over a Kick Starter, Apprentice, or AEB or Sector Based Work Academy (SBWA) candidate?

This probably depends on the business you run. If you are an employer with genuine Apprenticeship or employment opportunities for Trainees to progress into, then great. But many employers are shedding Apprentices, and out of the three main options for younger people (Trainee, Kick Starter and Apprentice) the Trainee is most likely to provoke a perverse incentive i.e. as an employer you might be tempted to just take the young person on for six months (getting £1000 and the free labour), then let them go. But, having seen investment in your Kick Starter, or invested in an Apprentice, you might be less likely to let either of these go quite so easily.

That said, some employers will be motivated to take on a Trainee because they genuinely want to give a socially disadvantaged young person a chance. But even these altruistically driven employers may still let the Trainee go at the end of their time on programme.

3. If you were a training provider meeting an employer that trusts you, would you present them with a Traineeship over other options?

You would need to really know your employer. Kick Starter and Apprenticeships may be more attractive options for many employers (or AEB or SBWAs for 19-24s, if English and maths is not so important). How socially minded is the employer? Are they looking to recruit from among young people who are farthest away from the labour market? Are there real prospects for the employer to keep their Trainee on after their placement?

So how good are Traineeships? You might say that “it all depends…”

As a provider, you might gain some Traineeships funding in a fierce tender competition, with a tight deadline, which requires time and expense to produce a tender capable of winning, but it would certainly then be hard to actually deliver the Traineeships, and to build a sustainable business stream. You would need to dedicate resource, know your employers and specialise.

As an employer, you need to ask how much you care about the young person? Will you help them to develop and succeed? Will you give them a fair go and take them on after their placement if they demonstrate their employability and teachability?

As a Trainee with no or low qualifications and multiple disadvantages in your life, this may be your most realistic entry point to the world of work. If you take your opportunity, are well supported and find a good employer, you may thrive, and progress to an Apprenticeship or other type of employment.

Mark Cosens MA FIEP, Founder, Cosens Consult

This article is written for any training provider or college considering Traineeships, or for anyone thinking of getting involved as an employer or potential Trainee.

Mark has served on numerous boards, provider groups and committees, with the aim of contributing to the development of employability, skills and education. A fellow of the Institute of Employability Professionals, his professional specialism is primarily in business development, bid consultancy and commercial writing. At significant junctures in the evolution of employability commissioning he has also been motivated to produce specialised advisory reports that have been disseminated across the sector.

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