Work and Business: Taking apprenticeship seriously

Alison Fuller, Lorna Unwin

As a respected and resilient model of occupational training, apprenticeship could and should play a much bigger role in the UK. Done well, apprenticeship fulfils economic, educational, and social goals benefitting employers, individuals and society. Employers who invest in and run good quality apprenticeships see them as central to their business strategy. They also understand that nurturing and refreshing employees’ skills creates a workplace climate where people feel valued and involved.For apprentices, the journey they undertake to become an expert and productive member of a community of practice provides a solid platform for further progression.

So why is apprenticeship struggling to reach the volumes and level of quality we need in the UK and what might a Labour government do to improve this situation?

The expansion of apprenticeship in recent years has benefitted older rather than younger adults. This is because government has blurred the distinction between apprenticeship and the standard on-the-job training anyone might do as part of their induction to a new job or to update their skills in an existing job.  Nearly half of all new apprentices last year were aged 25 or over because many of them were already in a job when they were ‘converted’ into apprentices.

Their so-called apprenticeship involved having their existing skills formally accredited and tuition in English and Maths to pass the required Functional Skills tests. These achievements are important, particularly for individuals without qualifications, but the conversion process has allowed the concept of apprenticeship to be woefully diluted. The rapid growth in apprentice numbers was trumpeted by government ministers, rather than focusing on how to boost places for young people and reverse the decline in key sectors such as engineering and construction.

Labour should take the serious approach to reform that is so desperately needed. The starting point is to recognise that good quality apprenticeships are the product of good quality workplaces and healthy employer demand for skilled people.  Apprenticeship cannot be fixed by simply reforming the content of qualifications or strengthening assessment. We have to ask hard questions about whether enough UK employers are up to the challenge.  We know that employers need support to run their businesses more effectively and create effective workplace learning environments.  Strong apprenticeship systems in other countries benefit from greater use of licences to practise which set standards for the training required to enter a range of occupations.  Procurement and planning powers, particularly in the public sector, are also powerful levers for increasing the number of apprenticeships.

Although the current government’s focus on ‘employer ownership’ is attempting to set new standards for apprenticeships, the process is still top-down with large employers in the driving seat. Labour could go much further by encouraging employer involvement at local level to generate the symbiotic relationship between the economic and societal benefits of apprenticeship.   This could be done through local Apprenticeship Boards comprising experts from industry, further and higher education, and training providers. They would be responsible for overseeing apprenticeship standards and awarding completion certificates. This would position apprenticeship as an engine for  local economic growth and regeneration by increasing the pool of  highly trained workers, as well as being a showcase for innovative vocational teaching and workplace change.  Regardless of sector, employer size or location, apprenticeships would all conform to what we have called ‘expansive’ principles:

  1. Apprentices have access to the necessary knowledge, expertise and qualifications to progress beyond, as well as within, their current job role and occupation.
  2. Workplaces enable apprentices to develop expertise both on and off-the-job.
  3. Apprentices have dual status as workers and learners to allow time for their skills to mature through practice and reflection
  4. Apprenticeship is valued as a vehicle for involving other employees in the training process as supervisors and mentors.

Labour should recognise that apprenticeship cannot be the only post-school vocational route for young people.  We need a robust system of full-time vocational education and training (VET) courses.  In The Netherlands, apprenticeship and VET courses operate in equilibrium according to fluctuations in the labour market, with the latter providing places when apprenticeship numbers drop due to changes in the economic climate. Both routes lead to the same Diploma. A mandatory work-based element means that VET students still gain valuable work experience and, crucially, small and medium-sized employers (SMEs) who cannot commit to taking an apprentice still benefit from having a well-trained young person on their premises for a few weeks.

Getting apprenticeship right won’t be easy when public money is tight and many employers are struggling to emerge from recession.  But the pay-off would be immense and send a signal that the UK is serious about skills and about young people’s futures.


  1. Brendan Caffrey

    Apprenticeships for young and older workers has a series of problems.

    Firstly basic knowledge of Maths and English may be adequate amongst older workers; or it may not. This would have to be investigated, and not assumed.
    Secondly older workers my have specific needs with respect to skills. Younger workers may have more generic needs, including basic Maths and English.
    Thirdly, work based learning is largely focused on older workers. There are real problems here with employers over time off for study, and doing research within the firm.

    Finally, younger workers aged 16 to 19, have lost financial help for education from the state. There may even be some antipathy towards education. This needs to be handled by experienced tutors.

  2. Graham Hoyle OBE

    Pretty good article overall, but why the antiquated desire to differentiate apprenticeships (for young people only) and adult employee foxcussed ‘work based/place learning’. We are in the 21st century not the 18th”. Everyone learns most (nearly all) of their work skills at work, often helpfully supported by theoretical input from schools, FE and HE. This process needs to be better organised for everyone to ensure their skills are properly recognised and most importantly continuously developed. The economy needs this constant employer led development. The current and overdue development of apprenticeships at all levels with employer designed frameworks at their heart opens the door to potentially position all employees as part way through the level they are currently skilled at. This level can then be completed and those with further potential can be moved up to the next. Time taken – long or short, – is not the criterion, simply the point when skill/competence is properly recognised and accredited (by employers?)
    Apprenticeships should be seen as the generic over-arching term to cover all formal organised WBL. Age and time taken are not important issues. Ensuring the maximum number of workers are regularly engaged and achieving is what the economy, employers and employees need.

  3. Walter Barker

    Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin’s study on “Taking apprenticeship seriously” offers a profound understanding of one of the most important areas of economic development in the UK. The authors propose a radically new approach to the education and training of most of Britain’s workers. Labour regretfully gave little attention to apprenticeships or any other form of vocational training when in office, although that sector is of greater all round importance to Britain’s youngsters and their futures than is academic education.
    It should be a Labour manifesto goal to ensure that apprenticeships and full time vocational education and training courses should ultimately have equal status to that of university education; as a matter of equality and social justice more government funding should go into apprenticeships and VET than to the university sector; strong local employer involvement in course setting and administration is crucial if high quality apprenticeships are not to become academically loaded or remain geared to the needs of large employers rather than to the full spectrum of employment; we should send small representative deputations to the Netherlands and Germany to learn from their insights and experiences and adapt these to our own needs; finally, consideration should be given to the development of licence to practice systems within every major employment sector – if Labour is right to insist on teachers and other professionals being qualified, the same principle should apply to all avenues of employment.

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