The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), the body that represents the training organisations who train 75 per cent of apprentices in England, says that not enough employers in the UK know how apprenticeships can benefit their businesses, and that this is limiting the number of young people being offered places on the highly popular programme after they have finished their GCSEs.
With one in five young people unable to find work and this summer's school-leavers swelling the ranks of those looking for employment or training opportunities, AELP is urging the government's National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) to work with providers to persuade more employers that apprenticeships represent an excellent investment with real returns for their business.
England has a lower proportion of apprentices in the workforce compared with France and Germany and AELP wants to see a new marketing campaign emphasising why businesses cannot afford not to invest in apprenticeships, especially when the government can help meet the employer's costs.
AELP has welcomed the government's significant investment in apprenticeships, with provisional data published in June showing that 326,000 people started the programme in the first nine months of 2010-11.
However, the number of people aged over 25 starting apprenticeships (121,000) was greater in that period than the number of 16-18 year-olds (102,900) and 19-24 year-olds (102,800) starting the programme. Independent training organisations report that the surge in adult apprenticeships is because employers are placing existing members of the workforce on to the programme while the difficult economic climate is making it harder for them to actually take on new apprentices from younger age groups.
AELP is also concerned that any calls by government on businesses to contribute more cash to funding apprenticeships at this time is absolutely the wrong message.
Paul Warner, AELP's director of employment and skills, said:
"2011 has undoubtedly been a challenging year for training providers in trying to encourage employers to take on more young people as apprentices. Therefore we have to be careful not to raise unrealistic expectations among young people who are receiving their GCSE results this week that an apprenticeship place is automatically there for them if they want it.
"To help meet demand from young people, we want to see a renewed marketing push by the government's National Apprenticeship Service to target the thousands of employers who have never employed an apprentice and explain why it makes sound business sense for them to do so."
Paul Warner attributed the growing popularity of apprenticeships among young people to the fact that apprentices earn while they learn within contracted employment, and that the programme's completion rate now stands at 73.8 per cent which compares well with the best in Europe.
AELP is also saying that the new Work Programme's chances of success would be boosted if the currently separate welfare-to-work agenda and the apprenticeship-focused skills agenda were merged into a single system of provision. In the association's view, the coalition government should be credited with recent progress towards a more unified approach, such as DWP ministers talking up the importance of apprenticeships. But to achieve the common goal of sustainable employment for more people in Britain, joined-up policy must match the single approach which AELP members themselves are rolling out at ground level.
More can be done to tackle NEET issue
Following on from the Wolf Review of vocational learning, AELP wants the Department for Education (DfE) to join the DWP and BIS in signing up to the sustainable employment goal as a way of reducing the number of young people out of work.
Paul Warner commented:
"We believe that the DfE's Foundation Learning programme can make a real difference to young people avoiding becoming NEET, but we are disappointed that the DfE has not yet accepted that landing a job as a result of the programme, as opposed to a qualification, should be officially counted as a positive outcome for a disadvantaged young person.
"In tackling the NEET issue, we would also like to see training providers enjoy the same flexibilities from the DfE in supporting young people as they are now getting from other government departments."
Government officials have indicated that they are willing to listen to individual providers' proposals for flexible and more responsive provision, and AELP will continue to maintain dialogue with them on the matter.