How unions and union reps support apprentices

Training is a union issue. Unions understand that access to education and training makes a big difference to improving the lives of working people.

We know that workers with in-demand skills:

  • Earn more money
  • Have better career opportunities
  • Are more employable
  • Have more negotiating power with employers

So unions have always argued the case for employers to invest more money into workers’ skills.

Unions and apprentices

Apprenticeships are a way to earn and learn at the same time, and can offer young people a great alternative to higher education. Unions support apprenticeships that:

  • Deliver high-quality, structured training to provide in-demand skills
  • Lead to real career opportunities
  • Ensure the safety and welfare of the apprentice

So unions have supported the introduction of the apprenticeship levy that makes large employers invest in apprenticeships, but we do have some concerns about how apprenticeships work in practice.


Union involvement in apprenticeships depends on whether the union is recognised by the employer. Recognition means that there is an agreement that the union and employer jointly negotiate the rates of workers’ pay and other conditions of employment, and that unions can have reps in the workplace.

Where employers don’t recognise unions, the union can still help and advise apprentices who are union members, so you should join a union whether or not your employer recognises them. See Joining a union.

Where unions are recognised, we can have a bigger impact on the way apprenticeships work in practice. Unions negotiate policies and processes with employers, and workplace reps get involved locally to put them into practice. Here are some of the main issues (click for more information):

Negotiating agreements with employers

Unions will seek to reach agreements with employers about the way apprentices are taken on. In this way, unions can establish good employment practices for apprentices, which benefit both apprentices and the established workforce. These may include:

Rates of pay

Unions want apprentices to be paid fairly for the work they do. An apprenticeship is a training role, so that doesn’t mean being paid the same as longstanding workers right away, but apprentice pay should rise towards permanent workers’ rates within a reasonable period of time.

Significantly lower apprentice pay rates could mean the apprentice is being exploited, and can also undermine negotiated rates of pay for the job, so unions will negotiate to make sure that apprentices are paid a fair wage.

Job role

Unions will also be keen to ensure that apprenticeships are real jobs with a productive purpose, so that apprentices aren’t just used to cover monotonous work that nobody else wants to do. It’s also a union priority that apprentices don’t take away the jobs of existing workers.

A genuine opportunity

Apprenticeships should lead to genuine career opportunities in the workplace. Unions aim to ensure that apprentices get taken on as permanent employees following completion of their apprenticeship.

Unions’ workplace reps will monitor these issues and make sure good practices are maintained, so let your rep know if you have any concerns.

English, maths and digital skills

Some apprentices need to develop their English, maths or digital skills in order to complete their apprenticeship. Unions will negotiate suitable additional paid time for apprentices to work towards achieving these skills, and workplace reps will make sure your employer sticks by agreements on that.

Some unions have lots of experience in helping workers improve their skills in these areas, so may be able to provide extra support for apprentices. Union learning reps, if your workplace has them, can help find good sources of extra help.

Additional training needs

Some unions have also developed online training portals, through which members can access a vast range of extra training – often it’s completely free to union members. There’s sure to be something that can help you towards your apprenticeship, so talk to your union learning rep, or speak to your union’s lifelong learning team to see what’s on offer.

Keeping all workers safe

Through workplace safety reps, unions work tirelessly to make sure management maintain a safe and healthy workplace. Union safety reps are specially trained to do this by:

  • Carrying out regular workplace inspections
  • Monitoring working practices
  • Identifying and researching workplace hazards
  • Investigating accidents and dangerous incidents
  • Meeting management to discuss and agree what action needs to be taken

Eliminating risks

Union safety reps also make sure that management comply with their legal duties to fully assess risks involved in work processes, and take all reasonable steps to eliminate or reduce them. They make sure management’s risk assessments take account of the fact that young workers may be at greater risk than older workers, and that all workers are informed about risks and safe working practices.

It’s about your health and welfare too

Safety reps don’t just deal with the big, obvious workplace hazards that can cause injuries. They’re also concerned with the hazards that can lead to health problems in the long-term, and the way work affects general welfare. Work can be stressful at times, so safety reps work to protect workers’ mental health too.

Equality, diversity and dignity at work

Trade unions stand for equality for all workers. We believe every worker should be treated with dignity at work, and not treated badly because they are in some way different to other workers.

Unions negotiate and agree workplace policies with employers, designed to prevent all forms of discrimination and harassment. We then monitor how well employers put policy into practice, and tackle any incidents where policies haven’t been followed.


Union reps make excellent mentors, because they have a wide experience and a good understanding of workplace issues. Their role will mean they’ve developed skills that a good mentor needs, including:

  • active listening and questioning
  • problem solving
  • building relationships
  • offering constructive feedback
  • setting targets
  • offering support and guidance, and signposting to other sources of help

Some unions specifically train their reps in mentoring skills.