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.

Apprentice pay

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 £3.50 (with effect from 1 April 2017) 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

What advice would apprentices give?