4:05pm Thursday 24th November 2011
By Chris Koenig
Politicians love apprenticeships and are becoming loud in trumpeting the undeniably laudable fact that more and more young people are finding a route into work this way — even though the impressive looking figures have been achieved against a depressing backdrop of record youth unemployment.
In Oxfordshire constituencies, 3,470 people started apprenticeships in 2010-11, up 34 per cent — not to be sniffed at, of course, though lamentably behind national figures which saw 422,700 people taking up apprenticeships compared with 279,700 the year before, an increase of 58 per cent.
In Prime Minister David Cameron’s Witney constituency the increase was only 12 per cent — among the lowest rate in the south east which compares with a 54 per cent rise in Oxford West/Abingdon and Oxford East.
Apprenticeships are formal training contracts under which the state meets some or all of the training costs, while employers pay the wages.
Liberal Democrat MEP for south east England, Catherine Bearder, told The Oxford Times: “Apprenticeships are beneficial to all involved and the record rise in people taking them up is great news for Oxford and the economy as a whole.”
And this week, Business Secretary Vince Cable also announced it would offer firms with up to 50 employees £1,500 to take on apprentices during 2012-13.
An initial payment will be made two months after the apprentice has started work, with the balance becoming payable when the apprenticeship is completed and the trainee is in sustainable employment. The scheme is designed to support up to 20,000 apprenticeships.
But how much will apprenticeship schemes really help to tackle the vexing problem of unemployment among the young?
As always, in tackling youth unemployment figures, the devil is in the detail. And the detail here is that it is all too easy to confuse two distinct groups of people: 16-18 year-old NEETs (people not in education, employment or training) who are too young to claim Jobseekers’ Allowance and those between 18-24 who claim it.
Disentangling those two groups reveals that here too, Oxfordshire’s figures for unemployed young people are slightly less encouraging than at first sight.
Official Government figures show that in Oxfordshire last month there were 2,000 young people claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance, down by 120 on the September figure, and that in Oxford itself there were only 600 young claimants (the lowest since December 2008) — but figures from the Department for Education for out-of-work 16-18 year-olds paint a slightly less rosy picture.
Oxfordshire NEETS in that age group are on the increase, along with their counterparts elsewhere in the country.
At the end of April 2011, Oxfordshire had 5.7 per cent of 16-18-year-olds classified as NEET, against a county target of 5.3 per cent. Now we are awaiting new figures from the department.
And on the apprenticeship front, nationally speaking, more than three-quarters of the growth in the number of people starting out on such schemes came from over-25s — not the very young at all. Statistics for Oxfordshire alone are unavailable.
All the same, it would be churlish to carp; for those who have found work through high-quality apprenticeships, the world is at their feet.
That certainly was the experience of Lauren Summers, 22, one of 19 apprentices at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory’s Diamond Light Source.
She is now in her third year of a four-year advanced engineering apprenticeship and has won an apprentice achievement award for successfully balancing her training while at the same time representing Great Britain in the World Ice Hockey Championships.
She said: “It has been tricky doing my ice hockey training and the apprenticeship but I thoroughly enjoy both so don’t mind working hard. My ultimate aim is to work in the space industry. The apprenticeship scheme offers a way into this field with RAL having a Space Department so I’m hoping to get a permanent position there when I complete my training next year.”
The RAL scheme, which has now been running for 19 years, is seen as one of the best apprenticeship schemes in the country.
It is funded two-thirds by the Government’s Science Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and one-third by RAL.
Successful applicants will have four GCSE passes at C grade or above, including Maths, English and Science.
The first year is spent at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College, learning the basic practical elements and also doing a day of academic studies and the following two to three years are spent on site, working through different placements at Diamond and RAL. It is a four-year contract, but it is possible to complete it in three years.
Head of engineering at Diamond Light Source, Jim Kay, said: “The apprenticeship is a great scheme to train up school-leavers and equip them with the skills needed to enter the UK job market.
“Most of the new recruits are aged between 16 and 19, so they are getting really useful on-the-job training at a young age.
“This carries them through to their late teens and early 20s, when they have the confidence and experience to take up skilled roles in the engineering and technology sector.”
Neil Lee, senior economist at the WorkFoundation think tank, said. “Obviously top-quality apprenticeships like Lauren’s are excellent.
“But I am concerned that politicians are in danger of going for quantity not quality here.
“There are good schemes and there are bad ones, and it is important that the currency is not devalued.
“Also, it is more important to see how many apprenticeships are finished rather than how many are started.
“Too often people drop out.”
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