Apprentices hit hard by lockdown as businesses axe learning

The lockdown has hit the already troubled apprenticeship system in England hard, with almost two-thirds of companies involved having to axe their programmes, according to a leading educational charity.

The Sutton Trust found that the coronavirus pandemic had forced 61 per cent of employers to suspend on-the-job learning, furlough recruits or make them redundant.

The report, which was based on interviews with 156 employers, warned that the 7 per cent decline in new apprenticeships in the first half of the 2019-20 academic year would “be exacerbated” by the difficulties the lockdown has caused for workplace teaching.

Apprenticeship schemes at 40 per cent of companies were suspended as a result of the lockdown because the external training provider had either ceased trading or was unable to run sessions. Just over 30 per cent of employers said they would either be hiring fewer apprentices in the coming year or none at all.

The loss of apprenticeship places will hit people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds hardest as they are more likely to be on schemes for lower-skilled jobs that have been among the first to be furloughed, according to the report.

“There will be profound effects on apprenticeships in the short and medium term,” said Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said.

He urged the government to do more to support training providers and warned minister it was “vital that access to the best apprenticeships stays high on the agenda, particularly as young people are entering the labour market at a very difficult time”.

Sir Peter said apprenticeships had a “crucial role to deliver on the government’s social mobility agenda”, which would be “especially important” as Britain comes out of the pandemic.

Since April 2017 apprenticeships in England have been funded through a levy system, with employers whose annual wage bill exceeds £3m forced to set aside the equivalent of 0.5 per cent of that sum for workplace training.

But despite offering employers the freedom to frame apprenticeship standards for what they feel are the most important skills needs, the levy scheme has struggled to raise the level of participation in workplace training. Between the 2015/16 financial year and the first full year of the levy’s operation, the number of apprenticeship starts fell 26 per cent.

The biggest problem with the levy system has been its failure to help school leavers and particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, the report said.

“This independent report should make for very sober reading within government,” said Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers.

“It confirms that the Department for Education appears to be operating in a parallel universe to the rest of us in not recognising how serious the problem is, especially the prospects for young people.”

The Department for Education did not respond to a request for comment.

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