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15 February 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:13am

How apprenticeships policy can boost opportunity

Employers and government must prioritise disadvantaged apprentices, says the co-chair of the Social Mobility Commission.      

By Sandra Wallace

To recover from the pandemic we need a resilient workforce, one that can deliver results, drive innovation and offers access to all. Apprenticeships have a vital role to play in that recovery – 92 per cent of firms who run a scheme believe it leads to a more motivated and satisfied workforce, while 80 per cent report higher retention rates. And those who start their careers via an apprenticeship have unparalleled knowledge from working their way up, which can lead to greater efficiencies.

For individuals, access to apprenticeships and further education can be a game-changer. When I was starting on my legal journey, I was told I wouldn’t become a lawyer because I didn’t go to the right university and I didn’t get the highest grades. Overcoming these barriers hasn’t been easy. But providing access to opportunities is critical, especially to those who come from less privileged backgrounds and are currently reeling from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Apprenticeships are a great tool to help us level the playing field. When disadvantaged workers complete their apprenticeships they get a bigger boost to earnings than their more privileged peers (16 per cent vs 10 per cent). We need to make sure those who need it most receive the right support – whatever point of their career they are at.

Read more: How Covid-19 caused a skills shift

So, at the start of National Apprenticeship Week (8-14 February), we would urge the government, via policy, and employers, through their recruitment efforts, to prioritise disadvantaged apprentices of all ages. Between 2015/16 and 2017/18, the number of apprenticeship starters from disadvantaged backgrounds fell by 36 per cent. The impact was even greater for older (aged 25 and over) and female apprentices.

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One of the recommendations in the Social Mobility Commission’s apprenticeship report was for the government to increase the share of apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds to pre-Apprenticeship Levy levels.

The DfE Learners and Apprentices Survey 2018 identified that among the main reasons for lower completion rates among disadvantaged apprentices were travel issues and low pay. We urge the DfE and Low Pay Commission to address the financial, as well as the non-financial, aspects of training. The government should further review the clustering of disadvantaged workers in lower-level apprenticeships.

Read more: Skills and the road to recovery

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To employers we suggest a clear pathway for apprentices when they finish their training. It’s not just about getting on a scheme, but also what happens once it has been completed. That could take the shape of sequential levels of training (i.e. moving from Level 2 to Level 3), or it might be a programme to progress talented apprentices.

Employers also need to ensure they offer comparable opportunities for progression and reward to those taking non-graduate routes – who may not have traditional academic qualifications, but a whole range of skills that could benefit their business.

The Covid-19 outbreak has created acute challenges for individuals and employers alike, and it is likely to further reduce opportunities for aspiring apprentices. Let’s use this week to reinvigorate apprenticeship programmes, and make them fit for purpose and accessible by all.

Sandra Wallace is co-chair of the Social Mobility Commission and joint managing director, UK & Europe at DLA Piper. 

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on skills and apprenticeships. You can download the full edition here.