When, in 2012, the government first signalled their intention to launch the Traineeship programme, I and many others in the sector gave the proposal a warm welcome. With its focus on employability skills and English and maths linked to a genuine period of structured work experience, I felt that it provided an ideal opportunity for young people to reach the first rung on the job ladder whilst at the same time acting as a stepping stone on to the Apprenticeship pathway.
The news this week that in the first six months of the scheme, only 3,300 people have started on the programme is therefore hugely disappointing. With unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds remaining above 900, 000, this level of uptake is going to have very little impact.
The government’s response is that the programme “is off to a good start”. If that’s the case, I dread to think how they define failure and if a potentially valuable programme is not to fall by the wayside, we need to understand very quickly why less than 130 people per week are taking up these opportunities.
I think the problems can be divided into 3 areas
- A Simple Idea Which Quickly Became Complicated
One of the great benefits of the Traineeships when the idea was first floated, was their apparent simplicity. This meant that potentially the scheme would be easily understood by employers and could be implemented quickly. However, as the proposals took shape, various caveats and conditions started to appear and the seed of confusion was sown.
Firstly the government decided that initially, Traineeships would be limited to 16-18 year olds thereby ensuring that people who had probably been out of work for the longest period were denied entry. Although the restriction was withdrawn, the damage had been done. Meanwhile, confusing rules were put in place around the rights of learners on the programme to continue to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA). Up until a few weeks ago, 19+ learners faced losing their JSA if they did more than 16 hours training a week. A similar rule limiting 18 year olds to just 12 hours training a week before losing their JSA, remains in place.
Confused? Well, there’s more to come because JAS claimants are currently limited to an 8 week job placement period, although this can be extended to 12 weeks if a job is imminent
- Do Employers Know About Traineeships?
With such a plethora of eligibility restrictions, it’s hardly surprising if employers are hesitant about embracing the scheme. But recent research by NIACE (https://www.trainingjournal.com/articles/opinion/more-visibility-traineeships-essential) suggests that the majority of employers simply don’t know that the programme exists. Whilst many saw the potential benefits, not a single one of the 14 employers interviewed by NIACE was aware of the programme. Clearly this represents a huge communication gap and one that has to be addressed rapidly if the whole project is not to become yet another failed initiative.
- Is There Enough Clear Water Between Traineeships and Intermediate Apprenticeships?
Whilst we all want to encourage SMEs to embrace both Traineeships and Apprenticeships, ultimately the success of the initiative will be dependent on the response of the large employers. If employers such as McDonalds, BT and Rolls-Royce who have won widespread recognition for the quality of their Apprenticeship programmes and train thousands of apprentices every year, were to make similar commitments to Traineeships, they would provide the impetus that the programme so badly needs.
We have to ask therefore why few if any have chosen to do so. I suspect that the main reason is that Traineeships simply don’t fit into their overall strategy. Many of these companies have proven routes into their Apprenticeship programme. In effect, they have created their own “stepping stones” and simply don’t require the Traineeship proposition.
Arguably, there is also potentially a considerable overlap between Traineeships and Level 2 Apprenticeships (similar English and Maths components for example). You have to question whether a learner who may have reached an acceptable level of competency during a 12 week job placement and also achieved a Level 2 Functional Skills qualification in English and Maths, would gain much more from then starting afresh on an Intermediate Apprenticeship programme. Personally I doubt it and I suspect that many major employers have reached a similar conclusion.
A Four Point Plan To Kick-Start Traineeships
As a born optimist who firmly believes that the difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is simply a question of how you use them, I’m keeping the faith with Traineeships and still believe that they can play a key role in tackling the skills crisis. But to achieve that, we need some new thinking and a new plan. So for starters, here’s my proposal:
- Drop the 12 hour per week training restriction on 18 year-old JAS claimants. It serves no purpose
- Similarly, drop the 8 week restriction on job placements for JAS claimants and encourage employers to offer a minimum of 12 weeks. Two months is simply not long enough for a young person to get to grips with the complexities of the work environment
- Challenge the 400+ employers who have signed up to the Employer Ownership Trailblazers Scheme to also champion Traineeships and produce a one-page plan to make the programme a success in their sector
- Reposition Traineeships as modules within a Level 2 Apprenticeship. Learners who successfully complete a Traineeship would have the added motivation of knowing that they were also well on their way to completing an Apprenticeship programme
Could it work? I don’t see why not. So let’s stop kidding ourselves about the programme being “off to a good start”. It clearly isn’t and we need to take corrective action now, not in 12 months’ time when it will be too late.
Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills