If I were to put out a recruitment advert that said in the small print “People over the age of 25 need not apply”, I would quite rightly be hauled up for breaking numerous pieces of employment legislation.
Yet that is the message that the government appears to now be sending out with regards to Apprenticeships. In the new contract year which started in August, Apprenticeship funding has very clearly been shifted towards learners under the age of 25 with particular emphasis on 16-18 year olds.
Whilst no-one has openly explained this strategy change, I suspect that the main reason may be a knee-jerk response to the bad (but not always fair) publicity surrounding very large numbers of over 25 year old Apprenticeships being delivered by certain supermarket chains.
However, I believe this strategy is fundamentally flawed at both ends of the spectrum.
Firstly, I’m far from convinced that school leavers as young as 16 are ready for the rigours of an Apprenticeship, especially one which now quite rightly will last at least twelve months. Many of these young people have left the school system with a poor experience of education and very low skill levels.
These people need to rebuild their confidence and accustom themselves to the workplace environment through a programme of employability, workplace skill training or pre-Apprenticeship programmes. Only then, perhaps after nine months or a year in work, should they start thinking about an Apprenticeship and a chance to develop a career.
I fear that someone in government believes that 16-18 Apprenticeships, with all the incentives that are being offered for their uptake, could be an effective way of massaging the NEET figures. If so, that is totally misguided. We will solve the NEET crisis by creating sustained growth and by changing our education system so that it prepares learners for a 21st century workplace and provides them with 21st century skills. We won’t solve the problem by simply trying to create short-term Apprenticeship opportunities for people are not yet ready for them.
Secondly, I am at a complete loss to understand why the government has dramatically reduced Apprenticeship funding for over 25 year olds. With the development of higher-level qualifications, Apprenticeships can finally be positioned as a genuine alternative to university and an opportunity for learners to develop a good career without the millstone of student debt around their necks.
So why should that opportunity only be offered to people under the age of 25? The skills crisis in the UK is not limited to this cohort and if older people now want the chance to get back into learning, why should they be penalised?
Of course, no-one wants to see government funding being used by commercial organisations to fund mandatory training. But this isn’t the norm and one or two bad apples shouldn’t be used to redesign policy. We work with many organisations such as Whitbread, Spirit Group and Barchester Healthcare who invest huge sums of money into their Apprenticeship programmes. They don’t discriminate on the basis of age, so why should the government?
So I have two controversial proposals. First, let’s raise the minimum age for Apprenticeships to 17 (with evidence of formal “pre-Apprenticeship” training as standard) and second, let’s stop discriminating against older learners and reinstate appropriate funding levels for over 25 Apprentices. Who’s with me?