Are apprenticeships the "first choice" for young people?

14 August 2013

According to the government, apprenticeships are now 'in vogue'.

A press release earlier this week from the National Apprenticeship Service and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills made the point:

"More than half of young people put Apprenticeships as "first choice"

The source was a survey conducted by the polling group ICM, which revealed that "54% of young people would choose to do an apprenticeship if one were available".

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock was also quoted claiming "apprenticeships are fast becoming the norm for school leavers who want to earn while they learn and forge a successful career".

So is all this right?

The poll isn't where we should be looking for answers.

Surveying 1,000 14-24 year-olds on whether they'd choose to do an apprenticeship 'if one were available' is revealing in one sense: it indicates how attractive the concept of an apprenticeship seems to be for young people. But it doesn't say anything about apprenticeships being the 'first choice' over other options that might be available, and we can't infer as much based on the poll's findings alone.

As well, neither the press release nor the minister does justice to the information that's actually out there about apprenticeships.

Only a small portion of school leavers take apprenticeships

For a start, in 2010/11, 568,000 pupils in England finished their GCSEs (Key Stage 4). Of those, 37% went on to sixth form, another 33% went into further education. 5% started an apprenticeship.

In 2009/10, 341,000 pupils left Key Stage 5 (A Levels). Just under half went into higher education. Only 3% started an apprenticeship.

So only a small proportion of school leavers go directly into an apprenticeship.

More people are taking them

Of course, this isn't a measure of how many young people end up taking one. We also know that last year (2011/12) 291,000 young people aged under 24 started an apprenticeship. Back in 2007/08 this was down at 198,000 and has increased almost every year between - even as a proportion of the young population.

Meanwhile, however, over 500,000 English undergraduates enrolled in higher education in 2010/11. Not all of these will have been young people and some may even have taken an apprenticeship previously and 'changed course'. Still, there are still clearly more undergraduate enrollments than there are apprentice starts.

So apprenticeships are becoming more common.

They're becoming more available

Wanting to do an apprenticeship won't get you very far if there aren't any out there. Fortunately, the National Apprenticeship Service allows you to search for vacancies, and the Data Service publish live numbers on how many openings there are.

There were 16,150 available apprenticeships at the end of July this year, most of these at the lowest (intermediate) level of apprenticeship. 

The number of vacancies has also been increasing over time. In 2008/09 a total of 8,040 vacancies were posted. A year later it was 43,000. Last year the numbers were up to 115,000.

These aren't all in the same fields though. You're most likely to find a placement in business, admin and law than you are in arts, media and publishing.

So more and more apprenticeships are becoming available, though not evenly across the board.

The first choice?

While this ICM poll might suggest that most young people would like to do an apprenticeship if one were available, polls are notorously unreliable at predicting what people will actually do in a hypothetical situation. The available evidence on the decisions actually taken by young people shows that while apprenticeships are growing and becoming more available, they're still not the first choice for most.

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