Apprenticeships can be an important way for young people to get into employment and earn while they learn. But young workers should not be used as cheap labour and need the protection of a union around them.

What is an apprenticeship?

Apprenticeships provide the chance to ‘earn and learn’ in a wide range of jobs, giving apprentices the chance to develop skills, experience and qualifications.

They take between one and four years to complete, depending on the level of apprenticeship and the industry sector. With youth unemployment at a critical level, apprenticeships offer one way of improving job opportunities for young people.

The governments of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all support apprenticeship schemes and there are some minor variations between them, but the basic premise remains the same.

Apprentices must be paid and, thanks to trade union pressure, there is now an apprentices rate established under the national minimum wage. However, that rate is very low – just £3.50 an hour from 1 April 2017.

Recent research suggests the average pay for apprentices is £170 per week, but this still only equates to £4.25 an hour.

UNISON wants an end to discriminatory rates and for the national minimum wage to be set at a ‘living wage’ level.

Your entitlements as an apprentice

  • A written contract of employment.
  • A full induction in the workplace.
  • A negotiated training plan or contract between yourself, the employer, and the training provider.
  • At least the apprenticeship rate minimum wage of £3.40 (with effect from 1 October 2016) an hour.
  • A safe working environment and protection from discrimination or bullying.
  • Release from work to attend formal training.
  • Provision of an appropriate range of work experiences to enable you to complete your qualifications.
  • Access to support, guidance and mentoring.
  • Quality training.
  • Regular assessments and review of progress.
  • Sufficient time away from work station or desk to study in work time.
  • So join and be actively involved in a trade union.

The UNISON view

UNISON takes a positive view of apprenticeships as a way of earning and learning and getting into permanent paid employment. But to get our support, we require schemes to meet some important standards.

Schemes should:

  • be properly negotiated;
  • pay apprentices at the rate for the job;
  • provide high quality training;
  • not use apprentices as cheap labour or as substitutes for existing jobs.

In the current economic climate, many employers are coming under pressure to find ways of cutting costs, and unscrupulous employers may be looking to exploit apprentices.

UNISON branches are in an excellent position to monitor schemes in the workplace and to help apprentices get organised to raise their voices about their treatment in the workplace.

Organising and recruiting apprentices

The growth in schemes means many more young workers coming into permanent jobs from apprenticeships – they will make up a significant proportion of the workforce.

For UNISON, this presents a major opportunity to build lasting relationships with apprentices and encourage them into membership and trade union activity.

We also want to see apprentices getting involved as a group as well – speaking up for themselves and bringing their issues into talks with the management and employer.

That way apprentices can develop skills useful to trade union activity, but which are also useful job skills. And the union is helped to build the next layer of potential leaders and activists.

Even better – apprentices can join UNISON for just £10 a year

Real story: Chloe WarnerUNISON member

I’m proud to have been a successful apprentice in the NHS.

“I started my 18 month apprenticeship in 2009 when I was 19.

“I was with my local primary care trust and the education side of the apprenticeship was through a private provider, Prostart.

“I did a human resources business admin apprenticeship, and spent some of my time in the training department. I was often asked to work in other areas doing a wide range of different admin tasks. I really thrived on the diversity of experience and skills I gained.

“I met with my individual assessor once a month. They helped with the training and mentoring, and supported me in achieving an NVQ2 in business administration. I first found out about UNISON on an apprentices’ awayday that the trust ran.

“We had a talk from a UNISON officer about the union’s work, and that got followed up with an email. Shortly after, I joined the union.

“I wanted to be an active member so I became a union learning rep and did the training for that. Now it’s me giving the presentations on apprentice awaydays about how to become an active member. I follow up with one-to-one contact and build longer-term relationships with them.

“At the moment I’m negotiating with my employer to talk to new employees at the trust’s negotiating days.

“I’ve completed my apprenticeship now, and have a permanent full time job with the trust in the HR team. I would encourage anyone to consider an apprenticeship as a route to employment.”

Real story: Getting it right in North Yorkshire

North Yorkshire County Council’s Real Start apprenticeship programme was put in place to provide “high quality training, quick progression to full, negotiated pay rates and permanent jobs” according to UNISON, which negotiated the programme with the authority.

The programme was introduced to be open to people aged 16-24 with a target of 150 places in 2008-09. The workers begin on the minimum £80 a week “but get the same package as everyone else in terms of annual leave, sickness benefits and so on,” says Justine Brooksbank, the council’s assistant chief executive for human resources.

Apprentices move on to the full rate for the job once they reach the required competence standard, usually within the first six months of their apprenticeship. Where full pay cannot be offered within the first year, pay is increased at three, six and nine months from the initial £80 to £188 a week.

Apprentices can also receive assistance with travel costs of more than £10 a week.

Apprenticeship policy and reforms

Apprenticeships can be a wonderful route into a career. Which is why UNISON welcomed government reforms announced in 2016, as part of its commitment to expand apprenticeships. But we have some concerns after announcements have set out in more detail how reforms will be implemented. For details on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland please see our more […]

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