COVID-19 has had a catastrophic effect on our economy that no one could have anticipated, with concerns of a double dip recession in Q4 to look forward to and an 11% annual decline in UK GDP. But while the outbreak of the virus was out of our hands, the way we managed our economy around the pandemic isn’t and sadly it’s young workers who are bearing the brunt of government blunders. With youth unemployment at 14.6% among 16-24 year olds compared to 4.8% nationwide, we’re badly letting them down.
It’s not just an issue isolated to 2020 though, I’ve been banging the drum for apprenticeship reform for years – it’s the answer to youth unemployment and the UK’s skills shortage. But so often we’ve been left disappointed by false dawns. The Apprenticeship Levy scheme, the government’s only solution pre-pandemic, turned out to be a dog’s dinner.
And now, their latest solution in response to coronavirus has yet again flattered to deceive. On the face of it, the Kickstarter scheme sounded great! The government committed to funding the wages of unemployed 16-25s for six months up to 25 hours a week. What’s not to like?
But news this month shows that just 19,000 work placements have been created nationwide since the scheme was announced and a Freedom of Information request has revealed the number of apprenticeships ending in redundancy in lockdown is two thirds higher than in 2019. And that’s because the Kickstart scheme doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. It’s a great idea ruined by ignorance and smallminded penny pinching.
To qualify companies must take a minimum of 30 young trainees, instantly ruling out 99.9% of UK companies which are SMEs. And all applicants must be on benefits to be eligible, depriving a huge swathe of the young population from access to important career opportunities.
A £2k grant to incentivise businesses to sign up apprenticeships ain’t gonna change things! A real apprenticeship costs an employer something like £50k over three years, so what sensible business is going to be swayed by a sweetener against such an expensive investment? The only firms who will take the money are those who would have taken on an apprentice anyway.
And the six months of support pledged needs extending – we cannot afford to lose new apprentices so soon after starting and have them going back on the dole; we need long term change! Seems to me we’re too busy building barriers when we should be building bridges and guiding our young workers across.
Young workers have to be the focus of our recovery, they are our future economy and deserve a decent shot at it in their important formative years. Otherwise, they’ll be the ones suffering short term and we’ll be the ones regretting it long term. Particularly in important manual trades like plumbing which don’t seem to get the same attention as more fashionable sectors like digital and tech.
Employers benefit from apprentices who are loyal and skilled workers, young people get the career prospects they’re after and the UK economy gains from a genuinely skilled workforce. It’s a win-win for everyone involved so now is the time to stop messing about with half measures and sort out vocational training in the country.
I left school aged 15 to follow my chosen career path. In 1979, I founded Pimlico Plumbers with nothing more than a bag of tools and an apprenticeship to my name and now it’s a multi-million pound business and the UK’s largest independent plumbing firm. Traditional education isn’t for everyone, and the sooner we wake up and realise that we don’t all need to follow the same path into further education and spend thousands on Mickey Mouse university degrees the better! That means investing more in apprenticeships, incentivising businesses and rewiring the nation’s mindset over vocational training.
News of possible vaccines suggests the end is in sight, but sadly the effects of the pandemic will endure long after the population has been inoculated. We cannot let the legacy of the pandemic and the government’s handling of it be the ruin of future generations. We have an opportunity to rebuild our economy from the ground up, and re-skilling our country for a prosperous future will be key.