This week I attended an Edge sponsored event at Portcullis House in the Palace of Westminster organised by Policy Connect and the Design and Technology Association. After a brief keynote speech from Edge’s Chair, Lord Baker, there was a panel discussion themed on the importance of Design & Technology and the decline in the number of students studying the subject at GCSE level.
The conversation focused a lot on apprenticeships and raised some questions around the issue of pay, the quality of training and the experience of apprenticeships in the workplace. Worryingly apprenticeship starts this summer were down almost two thirds on the same period last year, despite the new funding scheme which started in April.
The BBC reported about the experience of Tia Spencer, 20, from Manchester, who recently completed a two-year apprenticeship in business administration. On the topic of pay Tia said, ‘I think it’s the money that puts people off. If you are being paid £3.50 an hour, how are you supposed to live? I was in care and have been living independently since I was 17. I started a two-year apprenticeship in business administration aged 18, but the money was just awful. I got £5 an hour. I pay all my bills so it was really hard to survive on such low pay.’
However, she also said, ‘In the college part of my apprenticeship I learned quite a bit, but I didn’t really learn much at work. It was all very basic.’
Both the low pay and the lack of quality learning in the workplace seem all too common experiences amongst apprentices, especially those in certain sectors such as business administration and hairdressing.
At the same time, the people I know who are doing apprenticeships seem to be doing very well and earning relatively good incomes. There has also been an increase in the availability of degree apprenticeships and more people seem to see the advantages of an apprenticeship.
One member of the panel at Thursday’s event, Andrew Churchill, Managing Director of aerospace company JJ Churchill, said he invests £80,000 into his apprentices and pays them 300% of the minimum national apprentice wage. All the graduates working at the company were taken on as apprentices and have achieved their degree including those who were labelled failures at school as they were not high academic achievers. Churchill says he is looking for makers; people with hands-on experience and practical knowledge of what they’re doing.
There is clearly a divide between good and bad employers and good and bad training providers. A good employer who wants to recruit a skilled professional for the longer term, will generally pay better than the minimum wage and treat you well so you want to stay on.
I think the culture around apprentice low pay is beginning to change and things will begin to get better. More could be done to make change happen quicker, such as raising the minimum wage or making sure apprentices get the same percentage salary increase on the minimum wage as full-time employees. Poor training providers should be spotted quickly by Ofsted and other bodies and change should occur. Poor employers are hard to manage, but I think employers should be fined if the apprenticeship advert is misleading or if the student is not learning enough skills within the workplace to complete their course.
I have been lucky that I found such a good charity to work for, there is a good working environment and my role is varied so offers me a broad array of skills. I work with a small team so communications between departments is easy and I always have my line manager to mentor and assist me. If this was the standard for all apprenticeships in all sectors, then it might encourage more young people to take the apprenticeships route.