New Prime Minister Theresa May has this week undertaken one of the largest reorganisations of Whitehall in years, with the Department for Education taking on responsibility for higher and further education policy as well as apprenticeship and wider skills. Employment specialists Reed in Partnership – who have just released a report into apprenticeships alongside qualifications body NCFE – consider how this move could impact on the Government’s apprenticeship agenda.

The case for apprenticeships

The Government has committed to creating three million new apprenticeships by 2020, stating that they want them to be viewed by the public as being equal to degrees. The benefits of apprenticeships are clear, both for the individuals undertaking them and for the taxpayer. Individuals benefit from additional lifetime earnings of up to £74,000 for a level 2 apprenticeship, £117,000 for a level 3 apprenticeship and £150,000 for a level 4 or above.

The Government has estimated that the UK economy benefits by up to £28 for every £1 on level 3 apprenticeships, due to higher profits and wages, as well as reductions to the welfare bill. When compared to further education as a whole – where the average return on investment is £20 for every £1 spent – apprenticeships represent good value for money.

The UK is also set to face a growing skills gap, particularly in key growth sectors such as science, technology and engineering, which will increasingly become a drag on our economic performance. Employers in the UK invest less in training than many other countries – and the level of this investment has been falling over the last two decades. While around 15% of employers in England offer apprenticeships, it is much higher in other countries such as Australia (30%) and Germany (24%).

Apprenticeship image problems

Our new YouGov survey for our report ‘Delivering the Apprenticeship Ambition’ shows that apprenticeships continue to suffer from an image problem in the UK. Only 20% of adults consider apprenticeships the best option for young people, compared to 51% who view higher education as the preferred route.

The Government’s Apprenticeship strategy states that “our goal is for young people to see apprenticeships as a high quality and prestigious path to successful careers”.  However, we have found that this message is not getting through – with those aged 18-24 four times less likely than those over 55 to see the merits in apprenticeships.

We have also highlighted that apprenticeships have a particular image problem in London, with Londoners 40% less likely to want their children to do an apprenticeship compared to the average across England.

Making apprenticeships more attractive

Our research has highlighted that the very people the Government needs to be enthused about the vocational route – young people – are the least likely to find it attractive. 

With the Department of Education taking responsibility for apprenticeships under Prime Minister May, the Government should use this opportunity to send a clear signal about the integral role apprenticeships play in the education of our young people.

Careers advice in schools is currently too narrowly focused on the higher education route and, as a result, many young people do not consider an apprenticeship as a credible option. Rather than acting as a funnel to select subject options for university, it is vital that careers advice also outlines the progression routes should young people choose a vocational path. By aligning apprenticeships with the rest of the education system, the new government should seek to bring about a step-change in how apprenticeships are perceived. For instance, the think tank Demos recommend that publicising ‘high ability’ apprentices could help break down some of the negative perceptions towards apprenticeships in schools.

The evidence for the merits of apprenticeships is clear but in the eyes of too many young people, teachers and parents they are inferior options to degrees. The new Education Secretary will have a full in-tray, but focusing on delivering on the Government’s bold apprenticeship target should be among her top priorities. This is an opportunity for the new government to kick-start their apprenticeship ambition – and they should seize it with both hands.

Read Reed in Partnership and NCFE’s new “Delivering the Apprenticeship Ambition” for the full details of our YouGov survey and our recommendations:

Andrew Mackenzie
Policy and Research Manager, Reed in Partnership

For the YouGov survey; total sample size was 2,042 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken in February 2016.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).