The future of apprenticeships – are the political parties ‘learning on the job’?

Annie Peate, Policy and Campaigns Officer, CIPD, @AnniePeate

Over the last few years, apprenticeships have undergone a change of image. No longer seen as the poor relation of the university degree, apprenticeships are an increasingly attractive way to gain a qualification and job-specific skills whilst earning a wage. They’re equally attractive for employers, for whom apprenticeships provide the means of building a tailor-made workforce for the future with unique talent, skills and insight. This shift in mind-set is reflected in the findings of our recent Learning to Work survey, which found that around half (47%) of HR professionals surveyed offer apprenticeships – an increase of 16 percentage points since 2013. What’s more, over two-thirds of HR professionals who took part in our survey said that apprenticeships are effective at developing the employability skills of young people within the workplace. It seems, therefore, that both doing, and offering, apprenticeships is fast-becoming a win-win situation for all.

This week say the three main political parties launch their manifestos ahead of the General Election, so what are they pledging to do to build on this resurgence of apprenticeships? The Conservatives have announced that they will fund the creation of 3 million apprenticeships over the course of the next Parliament, planning to replace low-level Further Education courses with high-quality apprenticeships that combine the experience of work and a wage. Labour have pledged that they will guarantee an apprenticeship place for every school leaver with the equivalent of two A-Levels by 2020 – while also creating thousands of additional apprenticeships in the public sector and creative industries. Labour have also focused in on the quality of apprenticeships, pledging to give employers more control over standards and funding. Finally, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto includes plans to expand the number of degree-equivalent Higher Apprenticeships and extend the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers, reaching out to over 200,000 businesses over the course of the next Parliament. They aim to double the number of businesses taking on apprentices and extend them to new sectors of the economy, making it the norm for businesses to take on and train up young people.

It’s encouraging to see that all three parties recognise the important role apprenticeships play in providing a key route into the labour market for young people and giving businesses a way to grow, develop and retain the talent they need to be successful. We have also witnessed significant progress being made in terms of galvanising employer support for new initiatives like Trailblazers, with organisations playing an active role in defining and setting the apprenticeship standards that meet the needs of their industry and sector. The CIPD has responded to the growing demand from employers and our members interested in expanding the number of high-quality apprenticeships in their businesses by producing practical, step-by-step guidance as part of our Learning to Work programme.

However, safeguarding and further building-on this momentum must be a top priority for the political parties in order to avoid jeopardising the progress that’s already been made. This is why in our recently published Manifesto for Work, we call on the next government to maintain the direction of travel regarding apprenticeship reform and help maintain employer support for apprenticeships. Furthermore, we also ask the next government to ensure that the views, perspectives and concerns of SMEs are heard and taken into consideration when framing their policy on apprenticeships. Our recent Learning to Work survey found that only 26% of SMEs are offering apprenticeships, which is simply too few. To help stop SMEs lagging behind, we’re asking the next government to provide extra advice and support to these organisations about the business benefits of taking on apprentices – and young people more generally – alongside funding support for those taking on apprentices. If SMEs are to be the ‘engine rooms’ of the economy, they need the right support mechanisms in place to succeed.

Lastly, the success of any policy aimed at increasing the number of apprenticeships hinges on the number of young people choosing to pursue them. As such, ensuring that schools and the National Careers Service are sufficiently resourced to meet young peoples’ needs for adequate, objective careers advice and guidance is key. Without this essential piece of the puzzle, young people are still at risk of missing out on the potential opportunities any government hopes to create and denies employers the access to the skills they and the UK as a whole need to remain competitive for years to come.

Read our Apprenticeships that Work guide here.


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