Nearly half of all government-approved apprenticeships – including KFC and Pizza Hut servers and Starbucks baristas – do not meet the traditional meaning of the term, according to a new report.
The report from the think tank Reform published today (April 13) found that 40 per cent of apprenticeships officially approved by the government and listed on its apprenticeships website fall well below international standards.
Researchers for the report say that some rogue employers may be using the apprenticeship levy in bad faith to get subsidies from the government.
The levy, introduced last year, requires all employers that spend more than £3m a year on wages to pay 0.5 per cent of their total wage bill into a ‘digital account’ secured by HMRC. Employers can then draw on the fund to pay for training.
The levy was meant to encourage employers to take on more apprentices but it has been criticised for being too bureaucratic and complex. The levy’s botched roll-out was also blamed by Unite last month for a 26.5 per cent drop in apprenticeship starts this year.
The think tank Reform also criticised the government for letting employers decide what counts as an apprenticeship.
Low skill ‘apprenticeships’
“With hundreds of millions of pounds available in government subsidies for any training course that is labelled an ‘apprenticeship’, some employers have used this opportunity to rebadge an entirely inappropriate set of training courses as ‘apprenticeships’ when they are nothing of the sort,” noted Reform senior research fellow Tom Richmond.
He added that the list of roles now counted as an ‘apprenticeship’ includes “serving customers in a delicatessen or coffee shop, working on a hotel reception desk, performing basic office administration and serving food and drink in a restaurant.
Indeed, the official government website for finding apprenticeships has many such examples. One role as a Pizza Hut “apprentice guest server” is 14 months long and, at the lower end of the pay scale, pays only £4.20 an hour – just above the apprentice minimum wage rate of £3.70 but well below the standard adult minimum wage of £7.83 an hour.
The apprenticeship, hardly any different from a server role that pays at least the minimum wage, requires apprentices to “accurately take orders” and ensure the “food looks tasty and appetising”. A KFC ‘hospitality team member’ apprenticeship – lasting 12 months and paying £4.05 an hour – requires trainees to “cook fries and/or other miscellaneous products of the company” among other duties.
Richmond criticised such “low-skill training courses” because they “do not meet either the historical or international definition of an apprenticeship.”
“The financial implications of this widespread rebadging and relabelling of courses are significant,” he noted. “Almost 40 per cent of the new apprenticeships designed by employers are merely ‘apprenticeships’ in name only. Our calculations show that £600 million will be wasted each year on such courses. This will, in turn, lower the value and prestige of apprenticeships in the eyes of young people, parents and politicians.”
The UK’s growing pool of poor quality apprenticeships was compared to those in other countries such as Germany, where apprenticeships tend to last at least three years and encompass a much broader range of skills, even in hospitality and retail.
For example, German hotel apprenticeships – beyond training apprentices in reception, housekeeping and serving – also train them in other areas such as inventory management, stock control, promotions and marketing, managing employee shifts and handling complaints. These apprenticeships last a full three years.
Levy reform call
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail highlighted that Unite has “consistently supported high quality apprenticeships of which there are many good ones across a myriad of industries, such as engineering, construction and aerospace.
“There are also some unscrupulous employers which are exploiting the levy system – and these practices need to be stamped on hard,” she added.
“We, alongside many employers, believe that three year plus apprenticeships enable young people to hone their skills in their specialist trades – currently, employers can offer a 12 month apprenticeship and still qualify for financial support.
“There may be a place for a 12 month apprenticeship in some sectors but, on behalf of young people especially, we believe all sectors should be more ambitious,” Cartmail went on to say.
“History tells us that not enough employers are stepping up to the plate to offer the high quality apprenticeships that the UK so desperately needs to tackle the UK skills gap and shortages. It is paramount that there is a new generation of young skilled workers to underpin future growth in the economy.”
She pointed to the example of the construction industry, where she said “there is no shortage of young men and women wishing to take up apprenticeships.”
“However, Unite research has shown that overall only 11 per cent of these applicants gain a construction apprenticeship. This drops to nine per cent for BAEM applicants and just six per cent for women.”
Cartmail urged caution on Reform’s findings, saying that “there is a concern that this study from a centre-right think tank could be used as an argument for employers not to pay into the apprenticeship levy.”
“We believe that this would be very wrong as the levy should be robustly assessed, in particular its impact on the ability of SMEs to provide good quality apprenticeships on the scale prior to the levy’s introduction.”
Unite has called for a trade union voice in the Institute of Apprenticeships which administers the levy – unions after all have been instrumental in promoting and developing high quality apprenticeships in workplaces where they have put apprenticeships on the bargaining agenda.