For years I have been banging the drum for apprenticeship reform as the answer to the UK’s skills shortage and unemployment issues.
For a decade it has fallen on deaf ears — with the apprenticeship levy, the government’s only solution, turning out to be a complete dog’s dinner.
But finally, the government has come to its senses, with Rishi Sunak’s Kickstart Scheme that will fund the wages of unemployed 16–25s for six months up to 25 hours a week. It’s just a shame it took a pandemic to achieve such real change.
The initiative will give young workers across the country who have been hardest hit by the outbreak a boost, and offer them a genuine chance to get a decent job thanks to an extra incentive also announced by the chancellor, paying firms a £2,000 grant for each new apprenticeship they sign up. This combination is a game-changer.
It’s right that young workers were the focus of the chancellor’s statement last week. They are the future of our economy and deserve to be at the heart of the country’s job and education strategies. The scheme will be particularly important for plumbing and other manual trades — I just hope they get a fair crack of the whip as well as more fashionable sectors like digital and tech.
We now have to rely on businesses to use the money responsibly and not just take on young workers for cheap labour only to ditch them at the earliest opportunity when the money runs dry.
The government can help first by ensuring that as many formal apprenticeships as possible are signed up, and then by extending the six-month Kickstart Scheme to three years with the maximum hours per week employers can claim increased from 25 to 40. We cannot afford to lose new apprentices after six months and have them going back on the dole; we need long-term change. Not only will the employers benefit, with loyal workers and a better workplace culture, but the UK economy will gain also from a genuinely skilled workforce.
This pandemic has been an economic shockwave that nobody could have seen coming (unless they were on holiday in Wuhan last October). Unfortunately, apprenticeships have borne the brunt of the impact, accelerating a trend that was already traveling at pace.
This time last year, the Public Accounts Committee found the number of apprenticeship starts had dropped by 26 per cent since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. Then the pandemic hit — and the number of vacancies on the government’s Find An Apprenticeship website has plummeted by more than 80 per cent in each of the first two full months of lockdown.
Now, we have an opportunity to rebuild our economy from the ground up, by re-skilling our country for a prosperous future where we do not have to rely on the whims of the international labour market to keep the country booming.
The Kickstart Scheme is a great start — and hopefully a sign of things to come.
Main image credit: Getty