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Why are so few Londoners starting apprenticeships?

London had a markedly lower average rate of apprenticeship starts in the last academic year than the country overall, data from the Department for Education shows.

According to statistics from the Department for Education of the bottom 30 areas for apprenticeship starts in the academic year 2022/23, 27 of them were in London.

As shown in the two graphs below the number of apprenticeship starts is not only lower in London generally but has also not gone back to pre-pandemic levels across the country.

Comparison between the average number of Apprenticeship starts in London and England excluding London in the academic year 2022/23
Changes over time for Apprenticeship Starts in England overall

Apprenticeships have a history dating back to the middle-ages, but the first national apprenticeship system of training wasn’t introduced until 1563.

In 2012, standards were introduced that said all apprenticeships must last a year at least, provide 30 hours of employment per week and a minimum amount of guided learning.

Joiner-builder Rowan Smith, 21, was unable to find an apprenticeship in his area and instead attended a vocational college from 2018 to 2021 obtaining a Site Carpentry and Joinery City and Guilds Qualification.

He said: “I feel like a lot of apprenticeships are being cut short or cancelled because the person doing it, if it’s just a man who is self-employed he’s got to ask for a grant or he’s got to pay for it himself.

“With the current economy it’s quite hard to do so whilst paying for an extra man.

“Also you’ve got a similar sort of thing with firms that do apprenticeships.

“If they are struggling within themselves to keep on the majority of their staff then they are not going to want to take on as many apprentices as they normally would.

“I wouldn’t say there are less people wanting to do apprenticeships. But I think there’s a factor of less people wanting to take apprentices on

“I think a lot more people now are wanting to do the whole university experience

“Because people want the experience of going out, meeting new people and getting away from home instead of finding a job straight out of school or college.”

In the academic year 2021/22 London was 12.8% above the England average of 48.6% in the number of people participating in higher education, which may indicate that more individuals are choosing university rather than apprenticeships.

The Sutton Trust, a charity championing social mobility, said: “Action should be taken by government and businesses to address the large decline in overall apprenticeship starts seen over the last few years, with a specific focus on access to apprenticeships in the most deprived areas of the country.”

One of the recommendations they advised should be implemented was: “Reviewing the apprentice minimum wage, with specific focus on whether this could be aligned to the national minimum wage or living wage, especially due to the high cost of living in London.”

Speaking on the reasons why apprenticeship start numbers were declining, hairdressing apprentice, Giovana Rodrigues, 17, said:“Number one it is very competitive to get into, it is very hard to be accepted into one and I would also say because of the pay.”

The current National Minimum Wage for apprentices is £6.40 an hour while London Living Wage is £13.15 an hour.

In 2020, only 17 boroughs paid the London Living Wage or above to all apprentices.

Rodrigues said her apprenticeship has helped her be more prepared for the workplace: “I think with an apprenticeship I found that I had a lot more experience dealing with clients and doing everything first hand.

“It gave me the experience that I needed and I also didn’t want to go to college just for the sake that I personally felt like it wasn’t for me and I didn’t want to be sitting in a classroom.”

A spokesperson for the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), an organisation that works with employers to support apprenticeships and technical qualifications said: “There are over 750,000 people on apprenticeships across England and one in 10 people who started on them last year was based in London.

“We would encourage more businesses to recruit and upskill their workforce through apprenticeships.

“Their skills, talent and potential will support London’s businesses to grow.”

As you can see from the graph below Bexley is the London borough with the highest rate of apprenticeship starts by quite some margin.

When asked about these numbers, Bexley Council said: “The reason our apprenticeship figures are so positive is that Bexley has a number of local businesses who engage with apprentices.

“Our local colleges also provide popular apprenticeship qualifications.

“We promote apprenticeships in our local schools as a career pathway.

“We also promote upskilling via our Bexley for Business website, offering levy transfers to other Bexley businesses.

“We also deliver a popular annual apprenticeship event aimed at 16 to 24 year olds, employers and providers.

“The benefits of employing apprentices include allowing businesses to grow their own workforce, unlocking local talent and allowing them to promote from within.

“Reasons for a fall in the number of apprentices across London could include the pandemic and the rise of remote working.

“Apprentices need face-to-face support to be able to train and learn.

“There are also fewer Level 2 apprenticeships available than before.

“Apprenticeships that start at Level 3 need higher qualifications and this can sometimes be a barrier.”

The reasons for fewer Londoner’s taking up apprenticeships are varied but it may not necessarily be less people wanting to do them but simply less available.

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