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A strategy for reversing the decline in youth apprenticeships is one of the vital ingredients missing from UK skills policy

Education and skills are important drivers of productivity, and employers can ill afford escalating skills gaps in their workforce and growing challenges in finding suitably skilled staff when recruiting1. But research by NFER for The Skills Imperative 2035: Essential skills for tomorrow’s workforce suggests this is a likely consequence of anticipated changes in the structure of the labour market, unless urgent action is taken.2  In response, we need to increase the flow of suitably skilled young people into priority sectors, overcoming the challenge of rising youth unemployment and economic inactivity.3  We must also mitigate the risk that withdrawing funding from Applied General Qualifications which ‘overlap’ with T-Levels will leave many disadvantaged young people stranded without suitable post-16 qualification options.

Apprenticeships form a key pillar in the government’s reformed technical offer to young people, which is becoming, primarily, apprenticeships, T-Levels and the T-Level Foundation Year. However, gone are the days when apprenticeships provided stable and secure routes into employment for over a third of teenage boys, and a sizeable proportion of girls. Apprenticeships in the UK are now largely taken by workers already in the labour market, rather than young people transitioning into work4. Less than 1 in 20 16-18-year-olds are now apprenticesand starts have dropped dramatically in recent years, particularly among young people from deprived areas. In 2015/16 over 130,000 under 19 year-olds started apprenticeships, but this figure has dropped to around 78,000, despite the returns to apprenticeships being considerably higher among young people6 and apprentices with Level 2 or 3 qualifications earning more, at the age of 28, than people who leave education with vocational or academic qualifications at the same level.7  Apprenticeships pay off for young people. We need a strategy for reversing their decline.

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