More apprenticeships, but some are locked out

Blog posts

17 Mar 2016

Jonathan BuzzeoJonathan Buzzeo, Research Fellow

The expansion of the apprenticeship offer will not help to reduce unemployment among the most vulnerable young people unless some fundamental barriers to participation are addressed.

The UK unemployment rate is on a downward trend. Unemployment among young people (ie 16 to 24-year-olds), which has always been historically higher than all other age groups combined, is on a similar trend and now stands slightly below pre-recession levels. Since 2012, NEET rates (the proportion of young people aged 16 to 24 Not in Education, Employment or Training) are also showing annual decreases.  

Despite these positive overall figures, the proportion of young people who are NEET is still above the OECD average and there are regional variations. We know that unemployment and inactivity is associated with disadvantage in later life and poor social and economic outcomes. It is costly to both individuals and wider society, especially if experienced for prolonged periods and at an early age. It is therefore imperative that steps are continually taken to reduce the number of NEETs in the UK so as to improve the life chances of those who are most often vulnerable young people.  

IES recently undertook a study on behalf of the youth homelessness charity, Centrepoint, that sought to examine whether the government’s strategy to tackle youth unemployment will contribute towards this end. One component of this strategy is a statutory commitment to achieve three million new apprenticeships by 2020. The research thereby looked at disadvantaged young people’s current level of participation in apprenticeships and the barriers that restrict this, to see if an expanded apprenticeship offer could remedy the situation.

There is little information available about the socio-economic characteristics of apprentices. The few bits of evidence we have tend to be derived from surveys. For instance, research published by Centrepoint last year showed that only four per cent of the young people they support had ever started an apprenticeship.

So why is this the case? Through qualitative research, we identified a range of demand- and supply-side barriers that currently prevent greater participation among these groups. Unless these are addressed, then increasing the number of apprenticeships available is unlikely to help reduce levels of unemployment among the hardest to reach young people.

The full range of barriers are detailed in the report, but here I want to draw attention to some of the issues that young people themselves face, which can be among the most difficult to overcome.  

Due to prior negative educational experiences and low attainment, disadvantaged young people can struggle to meet the minimum requirements for entry into an apprenticeship. Thirty-eight per cent of Centrepoint service users had fewer than five GCSEs at Grades A*-C. However, many of the employers we spoke to wanted applicants to have higher  achievement at this level or at a minimum in core subjects such as English and maths. These requirements are unlikely to change. With the Government’s recent apprenticeship reforms and the activities of Trailblazer groups, we are seeing more new apprenticeship standards being developed at Levels 3 and above.

Traineeships could provide one possible solution for bridging this gap. These programmes, which can last up to six months, help 16 to 24-year-olds to prepare for entry into work or an apprenticeship by providing them with the chance to gain work experience while also improving their attainment in maths and English. Initial survey evidence suggests that these schemes can offer good rates of progression to employment and apprenticeship opportunities, though further research is needed on the characteristics of learners accessing these opportunities and their long-term prospects after completing the traineeship.

Whatever their true value for young people, the Skills Funding Agency recently announced that these pre-apprenticeship pathways will not receive any further funding over the next financial year. So you have an expanded apprenticeship offer that is not supplying enough potential entry routes for those with low educational attainment. 

Soft skills and the right attitudes for the workplace are also important for businesses in taking on a young person. Disadvantaged young people can be ill-prepared for employment in this respect, either because of negative routines they may have got into as a result of living in support accommodation; peer influences; or struggling to communicate well as a result of low confidence and self-esteem. This highlights that vulnerable groups will also need help in gradually building their self-esteem and in learning more about the expectations of employers to put themselves in a better position to access these opportunities. This could be achieved through the provision of mentoring from charities or training providers specialising in supporting hard-to-reach groups, and greater workplace exposure within these settings.

Disadvantaged young people and their families can also have concerns about the financial implications of taking on an apprenticeship. While all of the young people we spoke to were aware of what an apprenticeship was, there was a lack of knowledge about the contribution they could make to their future career and earnings potential. For several, their short-term goals were to move out of supported accommodation, earn a decent wage and be financially self-sufficient. They were aware that apprenticeships could be quite low-paid and did not believe this type of opportunity would help them to achieve their goals.

For young people who are living in households that are dependent on welfare, undertaking an apprenticeship can also have an adverse impact on their income. Parents are able to claim child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds who continue in full-time education or vocational training, but not where they become an apprentice. We heard accounts of young people withdrawing from apprenticeships for this reason, sometimes as a result of family pressure. So the benefit system can actually act as a disincentive to remain engaged with these opportunities. 

Finally, even where a disadvantaged young person is able to gain access to an apprenticeship, it is crucial that they are supported throughout these transitions. Our research highlighted how these types of opportunities can be at greatest risk of falling through during the first six weeks. If a young person can remain engaged throughout this period, they are more likely to complete their training. Among the individuals we spoke to, it was widely accepted that vulnerable groups will thereby require greater support and advocacy during these first few weeks to iron out any issues that they have. Ensuring that their employer and line manager understand their situation and will seek to accommodate their support needs and circumstances was seen to be equally important in this respect. 

Whether the Government is likely to make any additional provisions or support available for vulnerable young people as part of their reforms to apprenticeships to improve participation remains to be seen. IES and Centrepoint have made several recommendations for how they might do so, based on the findings from this research. The Government’s current plans for ending long-term youth unemployment and welfare dependency are centred on policies, such as the Youth Obligation for young jobseekers, which expect every young person to be either earning or learning. Ministers have highlighted how they want to create a ‘no excuses’ culture regarding this requirement. Our research suggests that the hardest-to-reach young people may have legitimate reasons why they are not currently able to engage in education, employment or training, and that these individuals will require greater assistance in overcoming these issues, both prior to and during their transitions, if they are going to be put in a position where they can succeed.

Read the full research report for Centrepoint

Report: Tackling unemployment among disadvantaged young people

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.