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Attracting young people back to apprenticeships

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Numbers of apprenticeship starts have dropped significantly since the start of the pandemic, most noticeably among young people under the age of 25, and for apprenticeships at levels 2 and 3.

What the data tells us

Government data shows that apprenticeship starts were 18% lower in the first two quarters for the academic year 2020/21 compared to the same period in 2019/20. This equates to around 36,700 fewer starts. In 2019/20, 23,400 fewer people were participating in apprenticeships than in 2018/19, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. What’s more, of the apprenticeships started in 2019/20, 47% were by people aged 25 and over.

It’s clear that the impact of coronavirus on apprenticeship uptake has been considerable. However, it is also true that this is a trend that predates the pandemic. The Edge Foundation reports that the overall number of apprenticeship starts has been declining since the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in 2017. 

The Apprenticeship Levy is a 0.5% levy paid each month by employers with an annual wage bill of more than £3 million. The pandemic, they suggest, has, “accelerated pre-existing trends towards older and higher-level apprentices.” Data confirms that the levy is largely being spent on training existing staff in higher-level apprenticeships. Providing more higher-level training opportunities is a welcome development. However, this should not be in place of creating entry-level opportunities.

Scarring effects on social mobility

The New Statesman has reported on the longer-term negative impact on social mobility that the disparity between the number of opportunities available at higher and lower levels will have. The magazine stated that the “number of 16- to 18-year-olds beginning apprenticeships plummeted by over one third between August 2020 and January 2021”, but “the number of level 5 and 6 apprenticeships […] opportunities grew by over 10%”.

This drop in the number of young people and unskilled workers accessing entry-level apprenticeships is cause for alarm. Naomi Clayton, the Learning and Work Institute’s Deputy Director of Research and Development, warned: “we might well see the scarring effects of that, in terms of lower future earnings for instance, in years to come.” Without training at levels 2 and 3, people are unable to access the higher-level apprenticeships which unlock better opportunities and higher salaries. This represents another link in the chain of inequalities that need to be addressed in order to create a just and equal society.

A crisis in confidence

It’s not just a lack of opportunities that’s caused the fall in apprenticeship starts. There is also a crisis in confidence among young people in the future that apprenticeships can offer them.

The Learning and Work Institute reports that while, “88% of young people had received information about apprenticeships […] only a quarter of those young people were considering applying.” Although the number of young people learning about apprenticeships as an option has increased, the Youth Employment UK’s recent Youth Census report explains, “Not enough young people feel they are being supported when applying for apprenticeships (19%) and only one in ten young people feel confident that they will be able to find quality work local to where they live.”

Viable solutions

The nature of the levy reforms means that they have “increased levy-paying employers’ financial investment in apprenticeships but also stimulated their preference to use it to train existing staff at higher levels.” One suggestion to fix the plunging number of new level 2 and 3 apprentices is a policy amendment. Naomi Clayton argues for “a clearer definition within policies of what an apprenticeship should achieve, […] which encompasses both skills and access.” Social justice and inclusion should be a fundamental aspect of the goal for apprenticeships. As a result, we should see more entry-level positions made available. Higher-level apprenticeships should also be offered in geographical areas where social mobility is stagnant.


For employers with a wage bill of less than £3 million, the government funds 95% of the cost of training. However, SMEs have expressed frustration at the non-levy apprentice cap. This is a restriction on the number of apprentices that non-levy paying employers can start through the digital apprenticeship service. It’s currently restricted to ten apprentices. Gareth John, Director of First Intuition, spoke to FE Week, saying those being impacted are the larger SMEs that have a wage bill just below £3 million and therefore do not pay the levy but are “some of the most important employers, particularly in regional economies” as they are able to recruit large numbers of apprentices. 

Finally, the Youth Census report highlights three key challenges that employers need to tackle to address this crisis: “the first is that young people do not know what skills you want of them. Second, they don’t know what skills they already have. Finally, they do not believe you have good-quality opportunities for them. Only 9.9% of young people feel confident that they will be able to access quality work where they live.”


One viable solution is to focus on better informing young people on the local and regional job market. They need to explore what skills are in demand and learn how to communicate their skills and experience. These must then linked to show young people how they can tap into these opportunities. Some employers already have this in hand. London-based Rhotic Media offers a variety of youth development schemes. The company collaborates with local schools and colleges to show students how to build a career in journalism.

During the pandemic, in-person workshops and visits were not possible. Rhotic created videos on “a day in the newsroom” to facilitate better understanding of what it is like to  be a journalist. It offers apprenticeships, paid internships and collaborates on projects like the 1000 Black Internship Programme. The programme is focused on increasing diversity in a variety of industries, including the media. The company’s values-led approach combines insights and information about media careers with well-paid opportunities. They are effectively facilitating the movement of young people into journalism.

Yet the ongoing skills deficit still demonstrates an alarming disconnect that has resulted in the rise of unemployment while many jobs go unfilled. Employers need to clearly communicate the jobs they have available and the skills those roles require. They must also show the potential career paths that those positions will set candidates on. In tandem, teachers and coaches need to support young people to identify their skills and recognise how they can be transferred. Young people need to understand the breadth of opportunities and different paths that are therefore available to them.

An opportunity for meaningful change

The data we now have, alongside the change in behaviours which has been brought about principally by Covid-19, opens up opportunities. We can now increase access and inclusion to young people and others who have historically been excluded from learning opportunities like those offered by apprenticeships.

Blended learning models enable learning to take place anywhere and at any time. And far from having a negative impact on educational attainment, these models are opening opportunities to all types of learners by blending the best of educational science and cutting-edge technology.

For single parents, people with a disability, those who are neurodiverse, have caring responsibilities or live in the countryside far from the city and its associated opportunities, the continuing rise in remote working and the possibility of blended apprenticeship delivery offers a chance to return to the classroom and to achieve a career that was previously out of reach.

Recognising the gaps in apprenticeship uptake, alongside the advances in technology and changes in how we now expect and like to live, learn and work, reveals an opportunity to further diversity and inclusion in education, to address social justice and enhance social mobility. When seeking to fix the drop in the number of apprenticeship starts at levels 2 and 3, employers, educators and policymakers should take the advantages of remote working and blended apprenticeship delivery into consideration. Doing so will open up the life-changing impact that access to education and employment can have to everyone.

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