Nadhim Zahawi, the new Secretary of State for Education

If @NadhimZahawi is serious about #LevellingUp across regions and sectors this Autumn, boosting apprenticeships and training should be central to his decisions. 

Apprenticeships: the key to social mobility and ‘Levelling Up’ 

Much more still needs to be done to close the disadvantage gap.

Overall apprenticeships starts fell by 6.9% to 253,100 between 2019/20 and 2020/21. 

Last year the Social Mobility Commission found that the number of apprenticeship starts among young people with a disadvantaged background fell by 36%, compared to just 23% for apprentices from more advantaged communities. 

As the economy continues to recover from the damage done by Covid-19 and life increasingly returns to some sense of normality, this Autumn could see pivotal decisions made about the route to ‘levelling up’ regions beyond London and the South East. If the Government is serious about ‘levelling up’ across regions and sectors, boosting apprenticeships and training should be central to their decisions. 

There have been some new initiatives this year, such as a £1.3 million pilot using new technologies to support those who are hardest to reach back into work. The Government is also targeting improvements at particular sectors, for example creating new flexible apprenticeships that let people work for several different employers in sectors which have more flexible working patterns. Employer incentives for hiring new apprentices were also doubled to £3,000, although this comes to an end in late September.

However, much more still needs to be done to close the disadvantage gap. There has been a steady decline in apprenticeship participation since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017, with a particularly acute decline at intermediate level, the first rung on the apprenticeship ladder. Overall apprenticeships starts fell by 6.9% to 253,100 between 2019/20 and 2020/21. Even more worryingly, last year the Social Mobility Commission found that the number of apprenticeship starts among young people with a disadvantaged background fell by 36%, compared to just 23% for apprentices from more advantaged communities. 

There are several reasons for this:

Firstly, many employers have chosen to use apprenticeship levy funds to invest in higher-level apprenticeships for existing employees, with a big increase in leadership and management apprenticeships. Only 31% of apprenticeship starts were at intermediate level in 2019/20, down from 65% in 2013/14.

The low value of the funding bands allocated to most intermediate apprenticeships also has an impact. Apprentices at these levels are more likely to need additional support to achieve functional skills qualifications and transition into the workplace from school or college. However, inadequate funding makes it difficult for providers to deliver a quality experience.

Many potential candidates also struggle to meet increasingly high expectations at the recruitment stage, with requirements for GCSEs in maths and English often disqualifying those who lack academic qualifications.

The pandemic has exacerbated some of the failings of the apprenticeships system, and we are now facing an employment landscape that threatens to widen the disadvantage gap and aggravate regional inequalities. Yet apprenticeships can work as a motor for social mobility, whilst accelerating business capability and output.

Global freight forwarding and supply chain specialist Woodland Group is a great example of an organisation that is bucking the trend and demonstrating the clear benefits of apprenticeships. 

They employ over three times as many apprentices as they did 18 months ago, and are set to achieve a ten-fold increase in the next two years. Their inclusive approach to recruitment involves no minimum entry requirements for its apprenticeships, preferring to review applications based on suitability to the role. Vacancies are promoted and accessible to people of all backgrounds, and learners are supported to achieve functional skills qualifications, with ongoing investment in workforce learning and development. Furthermore, new freight forwarding apprenticeships have enabled the business to address the skills gap it was facing as a result of Brexit and the introduction of additional customs requirements. 

Examples such as this show the power of apprenticeships in delivering social an economic improvement. Apprenticeship support should be central to the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper, given that it aims to improve living standards, grow the private sector and increase and spread opportunity. And to meet regional sector employment needs, the Government should include a specific commitment to increase the scope of Combined Authorities to deliver targeted skills opportunities with employers. 

The levelling up agenda will fail to take off if it is not fuelled by training opportunities to boost the life chances of poorer communities. To help young people from poorer backgrounds learn the basic skills needed to achieve their life ambitions, there should be greater investment in community-led social mobility initiatives allowing them to access early opportunities programmes. There should also be greater employer-specific support on a regional level, to help areas where the workforce is drawn from deprived communities to reskill and advance in their careers. 

Learners in the manufacturing and engineering sectors have been hit hardest by the pandemic due to the amount of on-the-job-training that has been missed. To support them, the Government could offer an additional £500 per learner through apprenticeship providers, for catch-up and pre-apprenticeship learning. The Government could also temporarily extend the lifetime of apprenticeship levy funds from 24 to 36 months, so employers that cannot invest right now can wait until demand picks up.

Thought also needs to be given to ensuring employers are incentivised to take on new apprentices. For example, the Government should re-establish the £3000 incentive scheme for employers. This could be better targeted at the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, such as aviation, transport and logistics, and at young people aged 16-24 who have seen their opportunities suffer due to Covid.  

As some sectors like aviation and aerospace are clustered around particular regions, this has the added bonus of helping to level up opportunities for training and employment in these areas, helping to drive economic growth through a skills-led recovery that helps the UK ‘Build Back Better’ beyond 2022.

If the Government gets training and apprenticeship support right, this could be the most important part of an inclusive recovery that captures the regions, sectors and people that need the most help as we head cautiously towards a post-COVID future.

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