Can apprenticeships really help close the skills gap?

While apprenticeships have the potential to address workforce skills shortages, businesses are still offering too many at low pay and with little opportunity to learn new skills
Engineering Apprentices

In 2012, the government-commissioned Richard Review called for wide-ranging reforms to apprenticeships with the aim of delivering high-quality training for a respected industry qualification. The objective was that apprenticeships could help to meet the changing needs of the economy, shifting the focus from a university education. But more than a decade on, that remains a pipe dream.

GP Strategies Training has nearly 5,000 apprentices on its register but in 2022 Ofsted rated it ‘inadequate’, after an inspection found that “demotivated and disengaged” students were quitting their courses. Last month, the training provider announced it is to cease its UK apprenticeship training – a decision that leaves 4,700 apprentices in limbo and has put 95 jobs at risk of redundancy. 

Unfortunately, GP Strategies Training is hardly alone in its ineffective handling of apprenticeships. A recent report by education think-tank EDSK has unveiled some dire facts about the state of apprenticeships in England. The inconsistent application of centralised standards and certification checks, and the fact that the UK does not have an established history of prioritising vocational training – unlike many of its European neighbours – has led to apprenticeship schemes varying greatly, with some providing next to no meaningful learning. In many cases, apprenticeships have simply become a back-door route to low-skilled, badly paid employment. 

We need to take a holistic look at what will drive demand for apprenticeships, as well as what influences employers to offer them

For instance, the EDSK report found that many government-funded apprentices were being hired to make tea or answer the phones. It also notes that almost half (47%) of all apprentices drop out before completing their course. Seventy percent of those dropping out reported concerns about the quality of their apprenticeship. 

“From the outset applicants are kept in the dark, with little information about what an apprenticeship will offer them,” says Tom Richmond, founder and director of EDSK, and co-author of the report. “Even after their apprenticeship begins, learners can find themselves working in low-skill, low-level positions and earn less than the national minimum wage. 

“At the same time, employers have taken advantage of the opportunity to create ‘apprenticeships’ out of fictitious job titles, which typically turn out to be little more than training courses for their existing employees.” 

Indeed, employers in England have spent as much as £2bn in the past six years on generic management apprenticeships, which have benefited existing staff at the expense of younger people, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. 

Are apprenticeships fit for purpose?

In his time as chancellor, Rishi Sunak acknowledged this skills challenge, saying: “We lag behind international peers on adult technical skills. Just 18% of those aged between 25 and 64 hold vocational qualifications, which is a third lower than the OECD average, and UK employers spend just half the European average on training their employees.”

That spending is, naturally, part of the problem. According to the Learning and Work Institute, business investment in skills has fallen by 28% since 2005 and, despite the introduction of the apprenticeship levy on bigger businesses in 2017, the problem continues. But problems lie elsewhere, too.

“At its heart, an apprenticeship is a form of education that should give an apprentice the skills and knowledge to get started in their chosen occupation,” says EDSK’s Richmond. “Employers also benefit because apprentices are often loyal and effective employees. And with the right training, apprentices can quickly become productive workers who can help to plug the skills gaps in a company.” 

But apprentices generally aren’t receiving the necessary training from their employer or training provider, with many left largely to their own devices, Richmond explains.

Nevertheless, headline enrolment in apprenticeship schemes would seem to be rising again, with 3.3% year-on-year growth in 2022. Look sector-by-sector, though, and the picture varies. In engineering, for instance, apprenticeship starts have increased at a greater rate than in any other sector, up by 25.8% in 2020/21 compared to 8.6% elsewhere, according to data from EngineeringUK, a not-for-profit organisation that works to help the next generation of engineers. That is still down by 5.5% since 2018/19 and 12.3% since 2016/17.

“Apprenticeships hold huge potential for addressing workforce skills shortages,” says Beatrice Barleon, head of policy and public affairs at EngineeringUK. “In the UK, this is particularly prominent in the engineering and technology sector.” 

She points to a study by the University of Chester, which shows that the UK’s decarbonisation efforts will require an additional workforce of around 350,000 people, across the three stages of pre-construction, construction and operation. “Many of these jobs will be in the engineering sector, and it is estimated that around 70% of those will be at the technician level,” she says. Apprenticeships would be the ideal way to meet that challenge, were they up to the task. 

Why the government needs to raise the bar

When apprenticeships fail to do what they’re set up for, it results in young people lacking the incentive to pursue them. A 2022 survey of more than 5,000 young people found that while 60% of students at schools and sixth-form colleges were hoping to attend university, only 12% were interested in apprenticeships. Of the university hopefuls, 40% didn’t see apprenticeships as a viable path to their choice of career, with an equal number believing employers were more likely to respect degrees over apprenticeships. 

The only way to eradicate poor provision and sub-standard training within the apprenticeship system, says Richmond, is for the government to set a much higher bar for what constitutes “quality”, as well as consistently enforce the rules that are intended to protect apprentices from malpractice and exploitation. “If this change in culture and mindset does not materialise in the coming years, apprenticeships will continue to be considered second class and lack the prestige tied to attending university,” he says. 

Among other things, Richmond recommends the introduction of a new national apprenticeship inspectorate to approve and inspect employers and training providers, which would also be required to publish detailed training curricula outlining what apprentices will learn. At a granular level, EDSK advocates at least 200 hours of the required off-the-job training to be delivered in person, and activities such as homework and writing assignments are no longer classified as training. 

“Improving the offer and uptake of apprenticeships will require an open mind and willingness to work together between employers, government, schools and the other education providers,” says Barleon. “We need to take a holistic look at what will drive demand for apprenticeships, as well as what influences employers to offer them.”