Apprenticeship week in Scotland brought the idea of vocational training – a fashionable one across the UK political spectrum – back into the public gaze. With youth unemployment standing at around 20 per cent it is not hard to see why.
Last month, Angela Constance, the Cabinet Secretary for Training, Youth and Female Employment, told Holyrood: “Reducing youth unemployment is one of the biggest national challenges we face in this country. You can’t claim to be serious about the future of your economy, or the future of your country, without being really serious about the employment prospects of young people.”
Sir Ian Wood was commissioned by the Scottish Government to examine the transition between education and work, and how to improve vocational training for young people. The report’s recommendation to reduce youth unemployment by 40 per cent by 2020 grabbed the headlines, but some of the findings make for pretty bleak reading.
It says: "The reality is that almost one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them. We are simply not preparing or equipping these young people for the world of work. There must be much more focus on providing them with the skills, qualifications and vocational pathways that will lead directly to employment opportunities. It is also clear that employers have lost the habit of employing young people. Only 29 per cent of employers recruit young people from education and only 13 per cent of employers take on apprentices. Business and industry must be encouraged to work together with education and young people, and vice versa, to establish pro-active and engaged relationships which will benefit both young people and employers."
But despite the issues highlighted by both Constance and the Wood Commission, the Modern Apprenticeship (MA) programme – a cornerstone of vocational training – has been hailed as a success by the Scottish Government, with 97 per cent of apprentices saying they would recommend the programme to a peer and 75 per cent expected to remain with their current employer when they complete their apprenticeship. The numbers are up too, with the annual target for new MAs being increased from its current 25,000 a year to 30,000 by 2020.
As you might expect, Damien Yeates, chief executive of Skills Development Scotland, argues that the MA programme has exceeded expectations.
“Looking at the indicators shows it is one of the best performing work development programmes around – it certainly outperforms the other home nations and it is comparable with other European countries. The vast majority of our apprenticeships – unlike in England – are at level three or above. All our apprentices are in employed status and we have a completion rate of 77 per cent which is very high for workforce development programmes.”
He continues: “What keeps us awake at night is that we have got record levels of investment in skills and education, we’ve still got persistent levels of youth unemployment, but equally we have emerging skills shortages. Now how can those three things coexist, and how can you reconcile them? The explanation, largely, is that there is a divergence between the skills and education system, and the needs of industry. So we need to support the convergence and one way to do that is to have significantly more investment in work-based programmes. The value of investments we make in apprenticeships annually is around £75 million. Now that compares to a £1.7 billion investment in FE and HE.”
Yeates argues that aligning training with the demands of the labour market is key to reconciling the divergence he describes between youth unemployment and the skills shortage.
He says: “If you start from the demand side, it is hard to go wrong, because you are starting with an outcome already embedded in the programme. Often with HE or FE, or other workforce development programmes, the destination is not always clear – they lead to choice but they don’t lead to definite outcomes, whereas the apprentice programme does.”
The aim for bodies such as Skills Development Scotland is to try and mimic the success of the schemes in place abroad. Switzerland is often lauded as a world leader in terms of vocational training. There, young people can choose from around 250 apprenticeship occupations, with training typically lasting three years. Around a third of Swiss employers provide them, with apprentices typically paid a monthly starting wage of $800 rising to $1000 in third year. The average starting salary in the commercial market on completion is about $50,000.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the system’s success is that apprenticeships are the preferred route for the middle classes. Meanwhile it has one of the lowest rates of youth unemployment in Europe – second only to Germany.
But in Scotland, MAs face criticism. The numbers may have expanded, but there are still concerns that there are groups which the programme is struggling to reach.
Reacting to the report, Alastair Pringle, director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland, said: "Our own research into access to Modern Apprenticeships identified significant weaknesses in the current approach. The Modern Apprenticeships programme showed significant gender segregation between young men and women, failed to encourage ethnic minority uptake, and almost completely excluded young disabled people who made up less than half a per cent of the total apprentices in Scotland.”
Liam McArthur, the Lib Dem education spokesperson, says that although the rising numbers are to be welcomed, more MAs alone will not be enough.
He says: “There is no getting away from the fact that the numbers going through the apprenticeship scheme are quite impressive as an absolute total. There is clearly an appetite to go further and that is something I would certainly support. But as well as issues over quality, there have been concerns raised about who this is actually benefiting, particularly women. There are issues around those that are slightly older than the focus. With the problems associated with youth unemployment, the focus of the government has always been around that 16-19 age group, possibly extending up towards 25 but in the past, I have highlighted concerns about the make up of the workforce in more rural area, for example.
He adds: “Then there are those furthest from the labour market itself, which to be fair has been something that has bedevilled successive administrations, it has always been a high priority but I don’t think that, as yet, we have cracked it. So while applauding the moves in terms of expanding apprenticeships, government needs to be careful not to be too busy applauding itself for the overall numbers and ignoring the fact that for some of those most in need of this type of support we really aren’t performing any better than in the past. There is no doubt that Sir Ian’s report points to some of those shortcomings in the current set up, particularly women in certain parts of the economy – especially STEM.”
This is the difficulty that has faced successive governments – there is a tension between allowing employers to take the lead – ensuring that apprenticeships provide the skills needed by the labour market – and using them to bring in groups that are being disadvantaged.
As Yeates puts it: “For every £1 of public investment, the employer will typically spend more than £8. So there is a myth that the programme is a government one and that it should be directed towards policy areas. Now that is part of the proposition but the principal fact is that industry is funding it so the question is how to ensure broad access to the programme at every level. Now the evidence is that we have substantial entry at level two, which is very accessible to those who may have had a poorer academic experience, and we are seeing higher numbers of transitions year on year, from level two to level three, so we can see people are progressing. We are also seeing a stretch in those achieving level four and five.”
One solution being explored – and contained in Wood’s report, is to integrate vocational training, led by employers, more closely with schools. Yeates suggests allowing schools to combine the first year of an apprenticeship with the final years of school.
Yeates continues: “You could actually do the first year of an electrical engineering apprenticeship in school. Now that could have real value for people who may have a different end destination. That would allow them to do a significant amount of on the job training alongside their core subjects, which will lead them into level two of an apprenticeship, and help them understand the world of work in a much more meaningful way, rather than just do a day or a week’s work experience. So the ability to create greater routes of access into the programme are being explored and I think that would be achieved through ideas like this.”