Unionlearn held its annual "Voice of Apprentices" conference earlier this week, with over 50 apprentices putting forward their views on the current state of play. Our conference places apprentices at the forefront of the event, reaffirmed the TUC's belief that the quality of the apprenticeship system needs to improve.
National Apprenticeship Week is a welcome celebration and promotion of apprenticeships, but it's also an opportune time to reflect on the much needed improvements that still need to be implemented. The level of apprenticeship pay is inextricably linked to the quality of an apprenticeship. A high quality, decent apprenticeship must enable an apprentice to earn a living wage.
The recent BIS apprenticeship pay survey depressingly revealed that one in seven apprentices are still paid below the meagre apprentice National Minimum Wage rate. Women and young people were disproportionately adversely affected.
Too many unscrupulous employers use apprenticeships as a way of undercutting the adult minimum wage rates and lowering their wage bills, without offering the apprentice any meaningful training or opportunities to progress. Notwithstanding, the National Minimum Wage rates for apprentices are too low. Is it reasonable to expect an apprentice to live on a wage worth only £2.73 per hour?
As the NUS have recently pointed out in Progress, the effects of low Apprenticeship pay will be most keenly felt by the poorest students and their families.
Some families will lose their child benefit payment and child tax credit when their son or daughter starts an apprenticeship. These apprentices will face the double whammy of low pay and loss of their family's financial benefits.
There should be an increased rate of pay for apprentices and targeted enforcement of the apprentice National Minimum Wage. Until all apprentices are paid a fair wage, we cannot claim to have a high quality apprenticeship system.
The duration of an apprenticeship is also an indicator of quality. "Expansive Apprenticeships" (pdf), which are longer in duration, support the apprentice to develop a wide set of transferable skills. Longer apprenticeships also underline an employer's commitment to offer ongoing training and support to the apprentice.
We should aim at a new minimum of two years, to be phased in through discussion between employers, unions and other stakeholders.
Certain groups are grossly underrepresented in apprenticeships in particular sectors and in apprenticeships more widely. Only 1% and 3% of apprenticeship starts were by women (aged under 19) in construction and engineering, respectively.
Jeremy Crook, chair of the BIS Apprenticeships Advisory Group has highlighted that the proportion of ethnic minority people who apply for an apprenticeship is far higher than the proportion who start one.
Employers have been put in the "driving seat" and tasked with implementing recent apprenticeship reforms. But it's not realistic just to expect employers to make all the changes that would result in the necessary improvements in quality.
Genuine industrial partnerships, including all stakeholders within an industry, are needed to design and deliver high quality Apprenticeships. These bodies should also have a role assessing apprenticeship standards and monitoring the quality of apprenticeships.
Unionlearn will continue to make sure that the voice of apprentices is heard loud and clear, not only during National Apprenticeship Week, but throughout the rest of the year.