Our Research, Policy and Communications Intern, Lewis Tibbs, outlines the important role that apprenticeships can play in levelling up communities across the UK. 

The levelling up agenda is one of the most salient issues in British politics today. It was at the heart of the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto, with significant focus placed on the ‘left behind’ areas of Britain. 

These areas have not been strictly defined, and the levelling up mantra has not been tethered to specific places or regions, with beneficiaries of the Government’s Levelling Up Fund stretching from Doncaster to Portsmouth. 

Spaced across the country, these towns and cities all have different economies, demographics, and histories, and they all face their own unique challenges. 

But regardless of their differences, one thing that many of them do have in common: a stark lack of opportunity available for the young people who grow up there. Across the country, there needs to be a clear ladder of opportunity for young people. And at the Sutton Trust, we believe high-quality apprenticeships is one part of this, by offering a clear route of progression to higher skills. 

The impacts of deindustrialisation  

Britain’s transition from an industrial economy to a service-based economy throughout the 20th century has led to dramatic shifts in employment in our society. 

In 1950, manufacturing, construction and agriculture accounted for around 50% of the UK’s total economic output. For a long time, these industries provided a stable supply of well-paid jobs within communities across the country, with well-established frameworks to offer direct pipelines from education to employment. 

In fact, by the 1960s, over 30% of boys left school to become apprentices. But as technology developed, these industries experienced steady decline. 

The direct impact that deindustrialisation had on communities – many of which are located in the North of England and the Midlands – which heavily relied upon those industries for an array of employment opportunities cannot be understated.  

Towns like Oldham (where I grew up), a former cotton-producing town in the North-West which is also one of the poorest performing areas for social mobility in England, have long endured the economic and social impacts of deindustrialisation. 

Despite the fact that the sectors which once provided a strong framework for employment will likely never return, the local economies which sprouted from them can be reconstructed and rejuvenated, fit for the economy of the future.

By ploughing targeted funding and investment into skills and education as future sectors start to develop, the levelling up agenda provides the perfect opportunity to revitalise these areas. 

And apprenticeships, in particular, can play a fundamental role in accelerating their growth.  

Apprenticeships for the future 

The government’s own data shows that for every £1 invested in apprenticeships, the return on investment is £26-28. And beyond the clear macroeconomic advantages of investing in apprenticeships, the benefits of one – regardless of the sector which they are in – to an individual are huge.  

Apprenticeships give people a chance to earn while they learn; gain hands-on training and experience; and get an early step on the career ladder. 

In the future economy, these benefits will be more relevant than ever. Dramatic changes in the world of work including facing the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, will no doubt birth brand-new industries, sectors, and jobs – all of which will require skilled and adaptable workforces. 

But the UK has a large skills shortage, with three in five employers reporting that they are still unable to attract the skills they require. This is where apprenticeships and skills can play a transformative role.  

By investing into good-quality apprenticeships which help equip people with the skills required for the jobs of tomorrow, we can help to plug that shortage while also boosting productivity in the regions which need it the most. 

High-quality degree apprenticeships are gaining traction but despite being commonly presented as an alternative to university, last year, just 5% of degree apprenticeship starts were by under 19s. For young people – and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – there are still too few higher and degree level apprenticeship opportunities. 

Additionally, our research has also shown that apprenticeships for over 25s are significantly more likely to be offered to existing employees, rather than advertised as new opportunities. 68% of apprentices aged 25-54 in our survey reported they were already working for their employer – such apprentices were also more likely to have come from higher socio-economic backgrounds, limiting the potential for apprenticeships to drive social mobility.  

In order to widen access to opportunities, the government should reform the apprenticeship levy to include a maximum salary ceiling for levy funded apprentices, allowing funding to be concentrated on those who would benefit most. Employers should also be allowed to use their levy funds for access and outreach activities to help ensure all young people can access apprenticeships. 

There is also a need to support schools with the provision of good quality careers advice on apprenticeships, and to close the information gap among schools and teachers by providing them with better access to information and resources. Notably, in our survey, 14% of apprentices aged 16-24 reported that they did not receive any information or outreach before starting their apprenticeship.  

High-tech, high-skilled and high-wage 

With proper investment, we can support the creation of the “high-tech, high-skilled and high-wage” economy that the Government aspires to construct, as future industries begin to grow. 

And apprenticeships can be rooted into these new industries, with clear pipelines established to seamlessly connect local employers with local people, driving the creation of good-quality employment opportunities. 

The aspirations laid out by the Government last week in the Levelling Up White Paper are rightfully ambitious, but they must be matched with sufficient investment.  

The levelling up era has the potential to revolutionise our economy and transform apprenticeships in the process.  

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