Apprenticeship starts in the UK in May were down 60% year-on-year, a statistic that will be unwelcomed by the government as it places skills training at the centre of its plan for economic recovery from Covid-19.

Boris Johnson’s pledge of an apprenticeship for every young person is under threat as data from the Department for Education shows that starts for those aged 16-18 were 79% lower than in May last year.

The figures demonstrate the crippling impact of pandemic-linked lockdown measures on employers’ ability to implement new workplace training initiatives.

At the same time, they make for bleak reading for providers and investors in the apprenticeship and training sector, which had already seen a decline in starts prior to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Since April 2017, apprenticeship training in England has been funded by what is essentially a tax on large employers with wage bills in excess of £3 million, requiring them to set aside 0.5% of salary costs each month.

The scheme has increased flexibility around the kind of training on which employers can spend levy funds but has failed to drive up the number of apprenticeship starts.

Between 23 March and the end of June, British organisations reported 34,690 apprenticeship starts – 52.3% lower year-over-year.  

Lockdown measures linked to the coronavirus conundrum have made it difficult – impossible, in some cases – to provide training that requires elements of face-to-face instruction or work experience.

The challenges and decreased number of starts follow chancellor Rishi Sunak’s summer statement, in which he announced that the Treasury will pay employers £2,000 for each new apprentice under 25, and £1,500 for each over that age.

This is part of wider efforts to mitigate unemployment stemming from the pandemic, which forecasts suggest could put 15% of the UK population out of work.

DfE data shows that most new apprenticeships are being undertaken by people aged 25 and above.

Learners in this cohort comprised 64.9% of new starts between 23 March and 30 June – rising from 56.5% in the same period of last year.

Higher – or university-level – apprenticeships, some of which are equivalent to MBAs, accounted for 33.1% of starts between 23 March and 30 June, up from 18.2% a year prior.

In April, it was reported that the government was poised to axe MBA-level apprenticeships amid concerns that the levy scheme – designed to get younger, less experienced people into work – was being exploited by employers to upskill senior executives.

Date published: 31 July 2020

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