Apprenticeships ‘not delivering’ social mobility


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Apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds face barriers at every stage of their learning journey, and the government and employers can no longer assume that apprenticeships automatically improve social mobility, a report has found.

Although disadvantaged learners get the most benefit from completing an apprenticeship in the long term as they receive a bigger earnings boost, there is a gap in the “value” of training they receive; they are less likely to progress from an apprenticeship into further or higher education; and are less likely to achieve their qualification.

“Apprenticeships are often considered a ladder of social mobility. They can support employability and enable individuals to gain skills in a non-academic context. They can also upskill and reskill workers, giving a second chance to those already in employment,” the report, compiled by London Economics for the Social Mobility Commission, says.

“But the system is not delivering. This report should serve as a sobering analysis of a system that could be – but is not – delivering social mobility in England. It should also serve as a wake-up call for government and employers to take action and close the disadvantage gaps within the system.”

It finds that completing an apprenticeship can potentially improve social mobility as it improves skills and reduced the employment and earnings gap: there is a 16% earnings premium at age 28 for disadvantaged women with an intermediate apprenticeship, compared with 10% for non-disadvantaged women.

The earnings gap also closes further up the apprenticeship levels, with the gap in annual earnings for disadvantaged men declining from £2,000 per year to £1,400 to £1,200 on moving from Level 1 vocational qualifications to intermediate and advanced apprenticeships.

However, apprentices need to overcome numerous barriers to get to get to this point. The apprenticeship levy reduced the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds starting an apprenticeship by 36% between 2015/16 and 2017/18, compared to a 23% decline in apprentices from more privileged backgrounds.

People from disadvantaged backgrounds are also more likely to be clustered in apprenticeships at lower levels: 48% were enrolled into an intermediate apprenticeship in 2017/18, compared with only 41% from non-disadvantaged backgrounds.

A young disadvantaged learner with an intermediate apprenticeship is up to four percentage points less likely to achieve a qualification at higher level than a non-disadvantaged learner, it says.

They are also less likely to complete their training than their more privileged peers, which the report suggests could be due to financial or accessibility barriers.

Some 63% of disadvantaged men starting an intermediate apprenticeship between 2013/14 and 2014/15 achieved the qualification within three years of the start of training, compared with 67% of non-disadvantaged men.

These challenges are likely to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it suggests, as reduced economic activity is likely to result in fewer apprenticeship opportunities.

“Disadvantaged apprentices are at a disproportionate risk of paying the most severe consequences of this decline,” the report says. “They are disproportionately employed in sectors that have been shut down, such as hospitality and retail. Additionally, they may be perceived by firms to be ‘riskier bets’ or more expensive to recruit and retain, compared with non-disadvantaged apprentices.”

It sets a number of targets for the government and employers to meet by December 2023, including:

  • Increasing the share of apprentices from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds to pre-levy levels
  • Increasing the proportion of starters from disadvantaged backgrounds at advanced and higher levels to comparable levels currently prevailing for non-disadvantaged apprentices
  • Eliminating the disadvantage gap in levy support for starters at higher level
  • Ensuring the average planned duration of comparable apprenticeship programmes are at least as long for disadvantaged learners as for non-disadvantaged learners
  • Reducing the incidence of non-achievement for all socio-economic backgrounds to levels comparable to those in other education sectors
  • Ensuring completion rates for comparable apprenticeship programmes are the same for both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged learners.

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