A roundtable event held by the Employers Forum on Age highlighted the problems surrounding apprenticeships. Colin Cottell reports

Last week was a good week for apprenticeships, following the launch of the Co-operative Group’s new Apprentice Academy that is expected to create 2,000 jobs over the next three years.

But the landscape for apprenticeship programmes remains shrouded in challenges such as age-related funding, take-up by both genders and the status of vocational education when compared to university degree programmes, for even the UK’s largest employers. Those issues were among the key concerns of employers including BT, George, IBM and Pearson who participated last week in an Employers Forum on Age (EFA) roundtable, chaired by Recruiter editor DeeDee Doke.

The involvement of such household name firms with apprenticeships, and a 16% rise in apprenticeship starts in 2009/10, suggests they are on the up. However, Kevin Bowsher, equality and inclusion manager at the Olympic Delivery Authority, told the group the numbers of apprenticeships would receive a further boost if targets for different sectors were set, possibly by the government. He said this works with the ODA, where contractors are contractually obliged to provide a certain number of apprenticeships.

Many layers of bureaucracy and red tape go hand-in-hand with setting up an apprenticeship scheme, said Jenny Taylor, IBM’s UK graduate and student programme manager. “You have to get accreditation and funding, and there are so many different parties to get involved with,” she said. IBM launched its first ever apprenticeship scheme last November.

However, Jessie Buscombe, employer services director at the National Apprenticeship Service, suggested that smalland medium-sized companies found the process more straightforward than large ones. She said that more SMEs than large companies actually offer apprenticeships, although they typically take on fewer than large organisations. She added: “The market failure is with the large employers.”

Sian Hughes, employment and skills manager women’s project at the ODA, said that reduced funding for apprentices over a certain age (see Key Facts) was a particular problem when it came to attracting women into construction because women tend to enter the industry later than men. “Contractors want to take on women in the industry but without the funding they can’t”, when they come in at entry level with no experience, Hughes said. Contractors must focus their own budget spend on experienced help, she explained.

Contractors want to take on women in the industry but without the funding they can’t, when they come in at entry level with no experience

However, for large employers such as George at Asda, which already dedicates a significant spend to apprenticeships, the availability of government funding was not a deciding factor in determining how many apprentices were taken on. Joanne Ratcliffe, head of people at George at Asda, said: “If there were more funding for older apprentices, it wouldn’t mean that we took on more apprentices. We have customers to serve, and can only take on a certain number [of apprentices overall], and if we took on more that would dilute the quality” of training and mentoring the apprentices would receive.

Ratcliffe said that a key challenge was getting ’buy-in’ from parents. IBM’s Taylor, agreed this was a particular problem for technology companies when the apprentices were young women. “They go home excited and their mother says ’you don’t want to do that’,” she said.

Abu Bundu-Kumara, diversity manager at Pearson, said that because of cost, apprentice salaries were a particular concern of SMEs. In London particularly, they find it difficult to compete with large employers who pay more then the current £2.50 an hour National Minimum Wage.

“We pay a higher salary because we want the best people. We are all in competition with one another,” said Dennis Gissing, BT’s head of diversity practice.

Brad Coales, deputy head of London Workforce Development, suggested that SMEs could reduce the cost of apprentices by sharing them with other companies, by using apprentice training agencies. These operate like recruitment agencies, where the apprentices are employed by the agency and not the SMEs.

Shazia Fletcher from the apprenticeship unit at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) told the forum that the government was aware of the issues raised in the forum, and was working to address them. However, she said the bigger picture was engaging with employers who were not involved with apprenticeships at all.

Apprenticeships undoubtedly have a lot going for them, for both employers and those attracted to gaining skills while earning a wage. That said, they have some way to go before they are the finished article.

The next EFA-Recruiter roundtable, set for 6 July, will focus on access to work and young people who fall in the NEET category (Not in Education, Employment or Training), the homeless and other disadvantaged people.


  • More than 190 types of apprenticeships
  • Nearly 90,000 employers in England offer apprentices
  • A minimum of 16 hours per week paid employment
  • National Minimum Wage for apprentices £2.50 an hour
  • Average salary £170 a week
  • Age 16 upwards no upper age limit
  • 2009/10 apprenticeship starters: 279,700 16% up on 2008/09

The National Apprentice Service covers the cost of training as follows:

Age 16-18 up to 100%

Age 19-24 up to 50%

Age 25+ contribution for specified places

Source: The National Apprenticeship Service

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