Apprenticeships - German precisions and changing perceptions

The number of people starting apprenticeships has almost tripled since 2007. But with a government target of three million new apprentices by the end of the decade, how can more young people be encouraged to see them as a viable pathway?

two apprentices working

Steven McIntosh is working to break down some of the preconceptions people have around apprenticeships. “There’s a general perception that apprenticeships are low quality for underachievers at school and for people who don’t go to university” he explains. “Going into our research, we wanted to investigate whether they’re a valuable qualification in the labour market, compared to other vocational qualifications.”

Rare agreement across political parties that apprenticeships need more focus and funding has been one of the major results of McIntosh’s research.

While the post-school focus of most students is on university degrees, only half of 16-21 year old’s have participated in higher education by age 30. McIntosh, who is Professor of Economics at the University of Sheffield, is examining the future benefit of apprenticeships.

“University students get much of the focus, attention and funding. The other half receive much less attention. I call it the other 50%,” says McIntosh.

The German system, with apprentices working on a three-year programme, sees over half of their young people undertake apprenticeships. But unlike Germany, the UK still struggles to bridge the gap between school leavers and a pathway into work.

Despite that government target, 119,000 fewer people began apprenticeships in 2017-18, the year the apprenticeship levy was introduced, than in the previous year.


Despite this fall in the most recent year, the apprenticeships picture is considerably more positive than it was 12 years ago.

In 2006-07 fewer than 200,000 people studied for an apprenticeship. By the mid-2010s there were around half a million new starts per year.

Over 40% of new starts are now by workers aged 25 and over, debunking the myth that apprenticeships are only for younger people. That number includes degree apprenticeships, introduced recently to include apprentices working towards a Bachelor’s degree.

“Recent work I’ve been doing has explored the explosion in the number of older apprentices,” he explains. McIntosh’s research has compared wage returns for older as well as younger apprentices. Those returns are two to three times higher for the younger age group aged 19-24 than for older apprentices aged 25+.

And when it comes to apprentices as a whole, his research has highlighted that the sum of benefits to all parties exceed the total costs by over £100,000 in some areas such as Construction, over the working life of the apprentice.

But what about the benefit for employers offering apprenticeships? “Employers get the ability to influence the training. The new apprenticeship standards are drawn up by employers to define what they’re looking for in a skilled person. They can directly influence the training rather than just take what’s produced.”

Further information

Relevant publications

Labour Market Outcomes of Older Versus Younger Apprentices: A Comparison of Earnings Differentials

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