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Britain's apprenticeships system isn't fit for purpose

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Apprenticeships should be a ladder, but for many young workers the rungs are missing.

In the last seven years the coalition government and now the Conservative government have committed themselves to increasing the number of apprenticeships.

It’s a cause close to many of our hearts in the Labour Movement. Indeed, at TUC Young Workers Conference in March delegates spoke passionately about the problems faced by young workers currently undertaking apprenticeships.

When compared to our continental counterparts in Scandinavian countries or Germany, who lead the way in providing apprenticeships that have real pay, real education and real outcomes at the end of a qualification and it’s easy to see why our current apprenticeship ‘system’ simply isn’t fit for purpose.  

Look further into some of the statistics such as the recent Apprentice Participation Survey (APS) and you see that a staggering 46 per cent of under 19’s undertaking a level two or three apprentice in hairdressing are currently paid below the £3.50 Apprenticeship Minimum Wage (AMW).

A number made even more damning when you consider that hairdressing apprentices receive some of the highest number of days of ‘on the job training’. Recent estimates by the TUC suggest almost one in seven apprentices are paid below the £3.50 AMW.

Nor is there any guarantee of advancement to High Level Qualifications, with shockingly low numbers of apprentices across all sectors starting Highers. Furthermore, in professions with a high density of apprentices such as retail, administration and construction the number of apprentices going on to start an Advanced Level qualification often drops off by as much as 50 per cent.

What this paints is a rather depressing picture of large numbers of apprenticeships being used to employ young workers under the age of 19 on low wages with very little prospect of advancement.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. In the public sector, young workers undertaking apprenticeships in the education and health fields are more likely to start a higher level apprenticeship qualification than those in sectors traditionally dominated by the private sector.

My own union, the GMB, tends to work well with employers such as British Gas to provide really high-quality apprenticeships with good pay and outcomes for young workers upon completion. Yet this is increasingly the exception and not the norm when it comes to apprenticeships in the modern workforce.

The government have moved to introduce an apprentice levy to provide funding to help employers train new apprentices. Yet more needs to be done to encourage non-levy paying firms to apply for the 90 per cent subsidy available for training, this would have a real impact in helping young workers upskill particularly in the construction sector.

Ultimately, a race to the bottom in the labour market for young workers risks perpetuating the chronic problems of underemployment and low pay that currently dog young workers. Britain can lead the world in creating a highly-skilled well-paid workforce that is ready to face the challenges of the future.

Image: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

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