Declining apprenticeship numbers have been much in the news lately. But completion rates are an issue too as the latest NCVER figures tell us.

Is there anything we can learn from Scotland? Maybe, but maybe we also know this stuff already!

The latest apprenticeship figures

NCVER has just released the latest data on apprentice and traineeship attrition and completions for those commencing in 2014. Commencement rates are down for both trade and non-trade occupations, and attrition rates are up. Overall, completion rates stood at 56.7%, across all occupations with completion rates being lower than that for the trades (54.5%) and just above that for the non-trades (57.7%). However, nearly 46% of all apprentices and trainees who commenced in 2014 have since cancelled or withdrawn from their training contract. Attrition in trade occupations was around 51%, while those for non-trades stood at about 41%.

Is there ‘trouble at mill’ with Australian apprenticeships?

In one of its Monday newsletters earlier this year, TAFE Directors Australia’s CEO Craig Robertson asked whether apprenticeships were VET’s canary in the cage? Are employers not engaging with the approach as much as they used to? So, are new approaches to public provision needed?

A while ago – 2012 to be precise – Tom Karmel and David Roberts used some work by Ben Bardon (presently the CEO of the  National Australian Apprenticeships Association) to help identify the characteristics of the best employers and potential apprentices and how these might affect completions. What they found was that employer size, and type and the social background of the apprentices, mattered. Bardon described tiers of employers and apprentices in terms of those factors most likely to contribute to apprentice ‘stickability’ and completion.

Mid last year PhillipsKPA released a report of a series of forums on the future of apprenticeships post 2020. First, the forums suggested that there is no simple answer. There never is. So, what they see as necessary is for stakeholders to shift their view. Phillips KPA argue that the system has become ‘ossified’ because “entrenched interests are effectively built into elements of regulation and system governance.”

To fix things they propose improving the status and role of VET and apprenticeships, developing more integrated pre-apprenticeships, simplifying admin systems and reviewing relevant training packages to ensure they are up to date and meeting current and future needs.

But one of the most important things to be done is to ensure that “that the roles of workplace supervisors and educators and related educational issues are appropriately recognised in the apprenticeships system and its governance arrangements.” What this means is better quality of delivery by RTOs and ensuring that “on-the-job supervision and training is of high quality [and] this requires supervisors to have the skills necessary to deliver quality on-the-job supervision.” Berwyn Clayton and her colleagues looked at this and other issues a little while ago in a report entitled: “Competency progression and completion: how is the policy being enacted in three trades?

What do the Scots do?

A paper by Malcolm Greig in a recent edition of the International Journal of Training and Development pointed to the low completion rates for apprenticeships in Australia of around (then) 53% in Australia against Scotland’s rate of 78%. While the paper has lots of fancy maths in it, one of the elements for high levels of successful completions are minimising mismatches between employer and apprentice expectations. This gets back to the quality of the apprentice and employer relationship: the right apprentice with the right employer. It also requires the right sort of apprentice support by employers and through their training providers.

From the apprentice perspective, “social, educational and personal demographic factors have all been found to be significant to some extent.” Older apprentices do better, perhaps reflected in a better developed work ethic and more work experience, with younger apprentices perhaps being tempted away to work elsewhere for more immediate and higher returns. Likewise, ethnicity, gender and location (rural or urban) all play their part in completion levels positively or negatively.

Like Australia, apprentices working for small and medium‐sized employers are less likely to complete. Larger employers may also carry higher prestige and be less likely to lay apprentices off in harder times.  Like Australia, the industry sector of the apprenticeship also matters.

One of the key messages from Greig’s paper relates to the level and nature of apprentice support. His research:

“identifies a need for focused support on those apprentices identified as being most at risk of not completing (for example, apprentices from deprived areas, from ethnic minorities, of a minority gender in frameworks with a high gender imbalance and those industry sectors where apprenticeships may be less valued), and to create an environment more conducive to completion for these individuals.”

They, like us here, are finding apprenticeship status is an issue, with many prospective apprentices choosing the higher education route.

And by the way…

Take a look at the Podcast on this issue, entitled “Apprenticeship rates: should you believe the hype?” on ‘Vocational voices’. It features Ben Bardon, the CEO of the National Australian Apprenticeships Association and Simon Walker, the Managing Director of NCVER. You can access it here  (Episode 2), or download the transcript here.