Q&A: Apprenticeships Minister, Anne Milton

The Minister of State for Skills and Apprenticeships on the changing face of the apprenticeship system.

 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When you look at the latest apprenticeship statistics, what do you think is going well?

There’s a rise of 15 per cent in the number of starts from this time last year. When I started this job over a year ago, businesses were very grumpy about the levy. What I’ve seen over the last year is a big shift, with employers realising that apprenticeships can’t be a bolt-on to your business. You’ve actually got to embed apprenticeships in your workforce.

If you look at people like Royal Mail, Ernst & Young, Channel 4, GSK, Virgin Media, Airbus, and a few public sector employers – Leeds NHS Trust is the real shining example – they’ve now got apprenticeships in their workforce planning.

But that rise is since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, which dramatically reduced the number of starts – the total number has still not recovered, has it?

I’d say it’s like comparing apples and pears. Pre the reforms, what was called an apprenticeship wouldn’t be called an apprenticeship today. That’s a big change. Now we say that they’ve got to be a minimum of a year, we’ve produced new standards – there are 390 of them now – and you’ve got to have 20 per cent off-the-job training.

What do you see in apprenticeships now that concerns you?

I don’t think I’m concerned. I think what we’ve been doing has obviously been working. And I think there’s a moment where employers see the light, and then will run with it themselves.

I was up at Virgin Media recently, and they’re really thrilled. The woman I met said to me: “It’s been fantastic for us as a business, realising how much more we can do with the local, particularly young, but not only young, workers in the area.”

The number of 19-24 year-olds going into entry-level apprenticeships in 2017/18 – the last full year for which data is available – was half what it was three years previously. That doesn’t concern you?

I reject the premise of your question; I don’t think you can compare what went on before 2017. Level 2-3 [apprenticeships] account for about 87 per cent of all starts, but you’re right that the number of Level 2s is quite low. We’re looking into that at the moment, to try and see why.

There have been a number of other factors that have gone on in the economy that may have had an impact. For instance, there’s been quite a big retraction in the retail sector1.

I think the retail sector accounted for quite a lot of Level 2 apprenticeships in the past. Added to which, we need to see if more 16-year-olds are staying on in full-time education. So, we’re digging into that, because we want to make sure everybody has the opportunity.

Over the same period, the number of people aged over 25 taking higher level apprenticeships has more than doubled. Is that good news?

Anybody doing an apprenticeship is a success story, if you sit where I am. And we know that there is a shortage of Level 4-5 skills, so that’s really important.

So a rise in the use of apprenticeships to train managers is a good thing?

There was an employer skills survey done a few years ago, and when employers were asked which areas they had the biggest shortage, interestingly they said management and team leader, that sort of level – that’s three fifths of employers. I was quite shocked2.

There is a feeling that you can get people in at Level 2 and 3, but businesses are looking to extract the people who can supervise and lead that team. It’s a demand-led programme, which is the advantage – employers are using the levy to get the skills they feel they’ve got a shortage in.

I heard a really good story the other day from an employer who has completely changed how they do their graduate programme. They’re now pulling in a lot more degree apprenticeships, reducing the number of graduates. And in order to do their bit for the local area, they’ve now set themselves a target for the number of apprentices they’ll have who are care-leavers. So I think companies, once they’ve got their apprenticeships system up and running, then the next thing is: is there something we could do that helps people from other, more disadvantaged backgrounds – people who wouldn’t normally have access to this sort of opportunity?

Isn’t it the state’s job to ensure people from all backgrounds have that sort of opportunity, rather than relying on businesses to offer opportunities as a form of charity?

I think I’d always welcome the fact that companies are doing this without being forced to do it. It’s good to see business operating in a responsible way.

You’ve previously said that you would bring in a system to get feedback from apprentices.

We’re phasing it in, so we’ve got it up and running for some employers, and it’s really good to see what they’re saying about training providers. The next stage is to start bringing it in for apprentices.

When that happens, will you get feedback from apprentices who don’t complete their apprenticeship?

In my ideal world, this is all up and running, and that would obviously be useful to find out – did they quit because the employer was not good, did they quit because they didn’t get the training they should have done? All of that will be really important data.

Why are apprentices paid so little?

When I meet apprentices, and I have literally met hundreds, the first question I always ask is: are you paid enough? And I have yet to see or meet an apprentice who feels that they’re not paid enough. They say “good” or “okay”, or “I’d always like more”, but I don’t hear “actually, it’s terrible”. And that’s what I’m looking for. Apprenticeship minimum wage for a 16-year-old feels like quite a lot of money.

£3.70 an hour feels like a lot of money?

If you’re 16, yes it does, actually, because you’re not earning anything, you’re at school. So, you’re living at home, you’re probably not being charged for living accommodation, so it feels like quite a lot of money3. But obviously you had a wealthy background, if £3.90 an hour doesn’t seem like very much – somebody was giving you a lot of money at 16!

1. According to Full Fact, while retail work always involves seasonal dips, these have not got worse in recent years and “the number of people employed in retail is relatively stable”.

2. The most recent Employer Skills Survey published by the DfE found that “the most prevalent reported skill shortage was a lack of specialist skills or knowledge” and that “employers were most likely to have experienced skills-related difficulties when recruiting for Skilled Trades positions”.

3. Apprentices do not attend school. The current minimum wage for an apprentice is £3.70, rising to £3.90 in April 2019. This can be paid to any apprentice aged  under 19 or in the first year of their apprenticeship. This amounts to a gross salary of £8,112 per year for a 40-hour week.]

 

Will Dunn edits the New Statesman's regular policy supplement, Spotlight.