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Why apprenticeship alone won’t fix the skills challenge of an ageing workforce

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 December 2015

Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin
There are now 1.3 million fewer adults (aged 19 and over) in further education in England than five years ago. Research evidence also shows that employers have been cutting back on off-the-job training since the mid-1990s. The average amount of training each worker receives reduced by about 50% between 1997 and 2012. Yet, the population is ageing and more people will need to stay in paid work for longer. The rapid development of digital technologies and other changes in the workplace mean that older employees (across all sectors) will need access to training to update their skills and to retrain. Pensions Minister, Ros Altmann has called for employers to focus on the ‘3 Rs’ of Retain, Retrain and Recruit to help businesses be more open to older workers.
So if you’re 40 or 50 and want to update your skills or retrain to find work or a better job, what can you do?
For the current government, affirmed most recently in the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review (25 November 2015), the challenge of boosting UK skills has narrowed to a single solution – ‘Apprenticeship’. A target has been set of recruiting three million apprenticeships over the course of this parliament. Since the mid-2000s, government-funded apprenticeships has become an ‘adult’ programme, as the majority of apprentices are aged 19 and over when they start. Currently (2014-15), just over 40% of those starting apprenticeships are 25 and over, and 3,400 are aged 60 and over. The majority of all apprentices (starting in 2013-14), including 66% of the 25+ age-group were at Level 2 (Intermediate). At least 70% (90% in health and social care) become apprentices whilst they are with their existing employer – a practice known as ‘conversion’*.
On the face of it, this might seem good news for older workers. However, our research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, showed that many adult apprentices are frustrated as their so-called apprenticeship only offers minimal progression beyond their current skill level.  This is because the emphasis is on accrediting their existing competence in order to achieve the qualifications that trigger government funding for employers, colleges and training providers. Yet the apprentices said they could make a more productive contribution to their places of work and to the economy more generally if they were given the chance to improve and, importantly, use their skills in the workplace. We are not arguing that adults shouldn’t be given the chance to gain qualifications that recognise their existing skills.
Many adults in and outside the workforce left school at a time when it was possible to enter large parts of the labour market without qualifications. But by dissolving the difference between training and being assessed and accredited for existing skills and knowledge, we have created the conditions for people to simply tread water, rather than stretching them so they can fulfil their potential. We have to ask hard questions about why so many employers have accepted this state of affairs. Research evidence has shown for many years that the UK has comparatively very low levels of management training and managers lack the capacity and experience to organise work so that the skills of all employees are fully utilised.
Rather than putting all our eggs in the apprenticeship basket, we need to develop a more differentiated response to the training and development needs of adults. Apprenticeship has a role to play if it provides substantial new training (on and off-the-job) for adults already in employment, for those trying to return to work, and for those wanting to retrain for a different occupation. But, if it is treated as little more than a new label for basic on-the-job training, we risk devaluing and undermining apprenticeship as a valued and trusted model of learning for occupational expertise, and platform for career and educational progression.
The government is introducing a levy on large employers as a new lever for increasing the quantity of apprenticeships, but without articulating a clear focus on how this will enhance quality. The concern is that publicly funded apprenticeship is used as a brand to cover all provision, including ‘conversions’ that can be badged and counted under the government’s scheme. This blanket approach loses sight of the need to align and differentiate training policies and responses by purpose and type of trainee.
Instead, we need a range of high quality approaches to fulfil diverse adult training needs, including short cycle provision, full-time courses, and apprenticeships. The organisation of work and workforces will have to adapt in light of demographic trends, this requires a much more holistic and sophisticated approach to work organisation, workforce development, and adult training and skills than the blunt instrument of apprenticeship as a one size fits all solution.
*Higton, J., Tu, T., Emmett, R. and Colahan, M. (2013) Apprenticeship Evaluation: Learners, BIS Research Paper No. 12, London: DBIS

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One Response to “Why apprenticeship alone won’t fix the skills challenge of an ageing workforce”

  • 1
    Iain Mackinnon wrote on 2 December 2015:

    I entirely agree that it would be a mistake to regard apprenticeships as the only solution, either for employers upskilling their workforce or individuals upskilling themselves.
    How far is the conversion problem you mention a problem of a moment in time (the period between the end of Train to Gain and the minimum 12 months requirement kicking-in) which will wash through the system?
    Iain Mackinnon
    Maritime Skills Alliance