It’s been a tough year for the apprenticeship movement which, like so many other aspects of the employment market, has taken some hard knocks from the coronavirus pandemic.
Latest figures from Skills Development Scotland show that a total of 10,604 people started a Modern Apprenticeship during the nine months to the end of December, nearly half of the pre-Covid total of 21,240 recorded in the same period a year earlier. Although this was an improvement on the previous quarter – when the cumulative of 3,633 lagged well adrift of the previous year’s total of 13,719 – there is still a mountain to climb to get back to where we were.
It’s been a similar story across the UK, with those under the age of 19 accounting for the biggest fall.
The government guidelines for apprenticeships throughout the pandemic has been that they can go ahead, but with remote training and assessments where possible. However, many of the most popular choices for apprenticeships are in public-facing roles such as hospitality and hairdressing, where remote learning is near enough impossible.
This no doubt accounts for a significant amount of the decline, but even in sectors such as business management, where it is much easier to adapt to remote learning, new starts have been lower than usual. The simple fact remains that many firms have been forced to focus on survival, rather than investment for the future.
In a bid to combat this, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in July the introduction of an incentive scheme giving employers a bonus of up to £2,000 to take on an apprentice between August 1 and the end of March 2021. The Treasury had budgeted for up to 100,000 incentive payments, but as of January 8, only 18,670 starts were planned under the scheme.
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Business and training leaders had warned that the incentives for apprenticeships weren’t enough to make a significant difference, with anecdotal suggestions that up to triple that amount would be required. It would seem they were correct.
Apprentices are one of the most cost-effective ways to bring in the new talent that will be needed to rebuild the economy, bringing with them fresh ideas and new perspectives.
Young people are among those who have suffered most in this economic crisis. Ahead of his Budget on March 3, the Chancellor should consider this and have a good hard look at how that unused incentive funding can be re-deployed to best effect.
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