Giving a voice to apprentices

Tricia Harley

Last year, the Campaign for Learning did a piece of research for Pearson into why some employers don’t get involved with apprenticeships. The results were pretty depressing. The in-depth telephone interviews we did revealed several reasons why some employers hadn’t taken on apprentices in the past and seemed unlikely to do so in future. I’ll focus here on the two biggest issues that emerged.

The most frequently quoted barrier for employers was information. Despite the considerable efforts of the National Apprenticeship Service, many employers still didn’t understand what an apprenticeship involved, didn’t know apprentices must be employed, had no idea that frameworks existed across the complete range of occupational sectors and saw no relation between apprentice recruitment and succession planning. Incorrect information that put employers off included that apprentices spent most of their week at college and that they had enhanced employment rights that would make an unsuitable apprentice impossible to get rid of.

The problem with information wasn’t scarcity, however. Many employers referred to there being too much information out there, not sufficiently tailored to their own circumstances, which without prior knowledge or a trusted adviser on hand proved impossibly time-consuming and complex to navigate their way through. Most employers we spoke to who had taken on apprentices said they’d found a provider they could rely on, who understood their business and helped them to find their way through the information available and isolate what was relevant to them.

The second barrier was closely linked to this, and concerned employers’ assumptions about who apprentices are and their beliefs about who their businesses needed. Some employers, for example, ‘only employed graduates’ – but this was sometimes because they always had, rather than because they actually required graduate level skills from day one. Some believed apprenticeships were only available at lower levels and were thus inappropriate to train employees for highly skilled roles. Others, more worryingly, perceived apprentices as ‘the lowest of the low’ – young people lacking in even basic employability skills who featured in government targets only in order to reduce the youth unemployment figures, and not to enhance the profitability of British businesses.  Ironically, the more the National Apprenticeship Service took out newspaper adverts encouraging employers to take on apprentices, the more they confirmed this group’s view that the government ‘must be desperate’ and that the young people in question had nothing to offer.

Interviewees who had met apprentices or their employers, however, usually took a completely different view. Seeing how capable and enthusiastic many apprentices are, and how highly valued by their employers had shown them how an apprentice might contribute to their business.

So what’s the solution? Both barriers had been addressed through face–to-face contact – with apprentices themselves, with employers who’d benefited from taking them on and with providers who’d helped smooth the employer’s path and ensure they received relevant, clear information. The Apprenticeship Ambassadors’ Network has a key role here – but they can’t be everywhere!

The London Evening Standard’s current apprenticeships campaign, Ladder for London, which features the stories of real young people and their employers, is bound to be helpful in breaking down stereotypes. Surely we should be making much better use of social media like YouTube and Facebook to bring the powerful personal stories of real employers and apprentices into boardrooms and works canteens across the country? The alternative seems to be that we’ll carry on doing what we’ve always done – and carry on getting what we’ve always got.

The Campaign for Learning is responsible for co-ordinating National Learning at Work Day each year in Adult Learners’ Week – see for more information.

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Apprenticeships matter

This series of blogs from MPs, those in the public sector and from industry as well as policy experts, looks at the issue of apprenticeships, addressing both the political importance and some of the policy questions. Including: where they fit, how they can be useful, attitudes, funding structures and connection to local communities, as well as other elements. Following on from Catherine McKinnell MP’s piece, which builds on her private members bill on apprenticeships that has now developed into Labour party policy, this series aims to look at the important and significant impact apprenticeships can have on education and training as well as the economy.