History and context: the changing face of apprenticeships

Blacksmith at work
woolzian/iStock
Richard Marsh
Apprenticeship Partner Director
Kaplan
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At their heart, apprenticeships are about combining working, learning and earning. This is an attractive combination for both individuals and employers, which is why they have been around for hundreds of years. However, in this time they have changed significantly and will continue to evolve in the years ahead. Richard Marsh, from Kaplan, explores the issue.

Before the industrial age, it was thought that youngsters serving an apprenticeship would enter the adult workplace with not just better developed skills, but a sense of what is required to be a good citizen. They provided a structured and measured way of learning and earning.

“The key factor differentiating apprenticeships in history from other forms of training was the expectation that young people would learn ‘on the job’, with doing most if not all of their training at work, delivered by a practitioner, a senior worker or an employer.” [McIntosh, 2005, p.251]

In the mid-19th century, no ‘master’ could have more than three apprentices at one time, so the quality of training and individual attention was assured. Anyone taking on an apprentice would receive a fee (the premium) usually paid by the apprentice’s parents or by a charity.

In return, apprentices would receive board, lodgings and training from their masters. Then their masters benefitted from free labour for that period, especially valuable in the later years of the apprenticeship term when individuals were more skilled.

In the 1880s, serving an apprenticeship with an employer dedicated to developing a young person’s skills was seen as the best way of combatting a worrying rise in so-called ‘Blind Alley’ jobs – jobs that offered youngsters comparatively high wages when they left school, then fired them when they turned 18 to replace them with new school leavers.

They also provided the promise of longer term prospects in the world of work.

How did industrialisation affect apprenticeships?

Industrialisation saw the development of many new trades whose apprenticeships no longer fell under those covered by previous Tudor regulations.

Yet the repeal of the law governing apprenticeships did not end systems of a fixed period of intensive training of younger people by employers, with expectations on both sides. Many trades continued to offer apprenticeships throughout the 19th century although there were important changes.

A seven-year term for all trades was no longer required. Indentures were replaced with looser, locally determined agreements. These passed the responsibility for determining the terms of an apprenticeship from the state to the individual employer, although the contracts were still legally binding.

These ‘indoor apprenticeships’, where apprentices had board and lodgings with their employers, are of course one of the many differences as to how they operate today. 

The decline in popularity

Apprenticeships began to decline in popularity in the late 19th century as people were tempted by quicker routes into working and earning, and when many were able to practice a trade without having served an apprenticeship first.

However, this prompted calls from philanthropic bodies and government to support and retain them, given the wider social benefits and prospects they brought to those undertaking them, and to society as a whole.

The apprenticeships we see today are quite different, yet are still rooted in their founding principles; guiding young people with working and learning, with financial and time investment from employers to nurture the skills of their staff to meet the needs of their business.

As apprenticeship programmes have modernised and developed, they have expanded from more traditional trades to programmes that work across different subjects and sectors.

Accountancy, for instance, benefits from putting theory into real-life situations, allowing apprentices to combine knowledge and its application. In recent years, apprenticeships have had the makeover they deserve, which quite rightly has helped them appeal to a broader range of young people and businesses.

2017 - changes to how apprenticeships work

This year will bring more changes to how apprenticeships operate. The introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy and new apprenticeship standards will impact the businesses looking to invest in them. The apprenticeship standards will place more focus on the knowledge, skills and behaviours developed in a job role and this should encourage businesses to think about utilising this training route.

It is fair to say the levy has caused some unease from the business community, and more needs to be done to underscore the results these programmes can deliver. The levy will apply to both public and private employers across all sectors with a payroll bill in excess of £3m a year, and set at a rate of 0.5% of the total payroll.

Each employer will then receive of £15,000 per company to offset their levy payment. Therefore, the levy itself impacts larger businesses specifically, but the changes have repercussions for the whole of the business community, including small businesses as they will now have to pay a flat rate cost. These changes will all come with the support and guidance of training providers and government.

In fact, the Levy means that Apprenticeship training will be more affordable for all businesses – levy payers or not. The government will pay up to 90% of apprenticeship training costs for non-levy payers, plus £1,000 cash for apprentices under 19, and National Insurance reductions for under 25s. This is more than they have paid for younger apprentices up to now.

The residual impact of these changes to apprenticeships will be felt far wider than the 2% of businesses directly affected by the Levy contributions.

By getting more businesses on board and providing more funding for apprenticeships overall, the stature and relevance of apprenticeships will be enhanced – hopefully making them an increasingly attractive option for training in the UK and something all businesses will want to be part of.

But what are the tangible benefits for employers these days? Well, apart from accessing the financial benefits of the 90% investment from the National Apprenticeship Service, we know that 89% of employers say apprentices make their business more productive.

Additionally, 75% of apprentice employers have found apprenticeships help to lower recruitment costs, and 80% say that apprenticeships will play a bigger part in their future recruitment plans.

Employers also tell us that apprenticeships are a great way to ensure diversity in their workforce and they provide effective development opportunities for managers as they have to use skills such as coaching and mentoring.

It’s been a long journey from their humble beginnings, but Apprenticeships look set to continue to provide businesses and individuals with practical training programmes that can deliver results for all.

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