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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Young for initiating the debate and displaying, once again, his long-standing commitment to the cause of apprenticeships. It is a little daunting to follow my noble friend Lord Monks, who has a wealth of experience in this field, but he and everyone else taking part in the debate share a commitment to apprenticeships, which help people of all ages to realise their full potential. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Young Women’s Trust, a charity that supports young women aged 18 to 30—especially those struggling on low or no pay—in getting into work that is right for them. I will concentrate mainly on how apprenticeships can provide workplace opportunities for young women, but also on some of the difficulties that they face.
Last year, the Young Women’s Trust commissioned research that found some optimism but discovered significant challenges and showed that apprenticeships are not working as well for young women as they are for young men. In the YWT ComRes poll, more than three-quarters said that they were struggling financially and had considered, or were, dropping out because they could not afford to continue and were in debt. That is because, as my noble friend Lord Monks said, the level of the apprenticeship minimum wage is a considerable hurdle for many young people taking up an apprenticeship. Among others, the Federation of Small Businesses has called for the apprenticeship minimum wage to be increased—albeit potentially in a phased way—to boost the attractiveness of apprenticeships as a career option for young people, including convincing their parents, who play an important role in young people’s decision-making.
I hope that the Minister will say something in his speech about how apprenticeships are assessed on completion because there seems to be a concentration on the number of starts, but not on the end result or why people have given up. Apprentices with children, the majority being women, face almost insurmountable problems due to childcare costs. There are also cases of maternity discrimination, where apprentices are forced to leave by their employer when they become pregnant. Part-time apprenticeships could ease that problem; there is an appetite for them among employers. In a survey of human resource decision-makers, carried out by YouGov, more than half the employers polled said that they would be willing to offer part-time apprenticeships. That figure rose to 65% in the public sector. What are the Government doing to promote the idea of part-time and flexible apprenticeships, which would go a long way to enabling parents to access apprenticeships?
It was disappointing to see from the poll that some employers continue to treat apprentices as second-class citizens, as my noble friend mentioned, with three in five apprentices saying that they were paid less than non-apprenticeship colleagues for doing the same work. If receipt of training is the justification for lower wages, that training needs to be of a high quality. For example, a 20 year-old level 2 customer service apprentice who talked to the YWT said that when there were staff shortages at Christmas, the extra hours were put on to the apprentices because they were cheaper. However, despite the extra hours worked, when the Christmas pot was shared out, the non-apprentice staff got the greater portion. She left that apprenticeship because she felt that she was being treated as cheap labour. She then got a national minimum wage job; it doubled her pay but she gets no training.
Many of the young women spoken to had no option but to live with their parents due to low pay, but that had a knock-on negative effect on the benefits that the family received. The Education Select Committee recommended that the Social Mobility Commission conducts a study into how the benefits system could address this issue. I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether the Government will act on that recommendation.
Another challenge was the cost of travel to work, especially in rural areas. The Education Select Committee’s report also highlighted this and called for travel support, as did the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto. What progress has been made in meeting that manifesto pledge to introduce significantly discounted bus and train travel for apprentices? Some employers offer loans to apprentices to help cover rental deposits or annual travel passes. Will the Government consider building on that good practice by setting up bursary funds? Where employers are unable to meet those costs, the bursary would go some way to improving access for poorer apprentices.
Progression is also uncertain, as my noble friend Lord Layard mentioned. Two in five of the young women who completed an apprenticeship in the past two years are now unemployed or working in a sector not connected to their apprenticeship. If they finish their apprenticeship, women continue to earn less than men for years afterwards. For example, a man on a level 3 apprenticeship will earn a median wage of £26,200 compared to £16,600 for a woman—a 50% difference in the man’s favour. This goes back to what does or does not happen in schools. Careers advice must deal with the current gender segregation, where young women are directed into sectors with low pay and young men into higher-paid sectors with better training. While the numbers of male and female apprenticeship starts are almost equal, only 9% of female apprentices are in engineering and manufacturing, compared with 80% in health, public services and care. It would surely make a difference if there were more taster courses and work experience for young people, so that young women could visit male-dominated workplaces to see that there was no reason not to consider those occupations. For instance, the UK tech sector is growing 2.5 times faster than the overall UK economy, and will continue to grow, but only 19% of the people working in that industry are women.
Careers advice does not always sing the praises of the benefits of apprenticeships as a route to work and educational progression. The Sutton Trust report says that 40% of young people have never had a discussion with a teacher about apprenticeships, while the IPPR found that two-thirds of schools still flout the Baker clause. The Sutton Trust also recommends a UCAS-style portal for apprenticeship admissions, which would change the situation if the information is currently scattered and inconsistent. It would allow young people to make informed choices about the opportunities available to them and allow progression between the different levels. That UCAS-style portal is not only supported by Members of this House who have spoken this afternoon; it was another Conservative Party manifesto commitment. When the Minister talks about the other commitment, perhaps he can update us on this one too.
However, as my noble friend Lord Monks said, we should be more positive and be reminded of what a difference an apprenticeship can make if it goes as it should. I want to share the story of the Young Women’s Trust apprentice of the year, 20 year-old Georgie Yates. After her A-levels, she started as an apprentice on the BBC’s legal scheme. Initially, she lived at home and commuted for two-and-a-half hours to Manchester every day. She joined the BBC’s next generation committee, which gave her an opportunity to give a presentation to the director-general about life as a BBC apprentice. She took that opportunity to tell him how hard it was to manage on an apprenticeship wage. He said that he would take up the issue and, from that meeting, all apprentices across the BBC received a 14% pay rise—you can see why she was the apprentice of the year.
Georgie is about to start her level 7 solicitor apprenticeship and will fully qualify as a solicitor in 2025. She says:
“It’s genuinely not an overstatement to say that this apprenticeship has altered the trajectory of my life. I have learnt so much and being at work has given me a sense of stability, safety and value”.
That sense of stability, safety and value is what we want for all young people starting apprenticeships at all levels. We must invest in the workforce of tomorrow if we are to close the productivity gap and boost our competitiveness. We need more stories like that of Georgie Yates.