Boris Johnson on Wednesday promised an apprenticeship to every young person, as the government braces for a wave of youth unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
The prime minister confirmed the government was drawing up a strategy for tackling widespread job losses caused by the virus, including through major investment in skills and training.
“In dealing with the fallout of coronavirus, we will be as activist and interventionist as we have been during the lockdown,” said Mr Johnson.
He added there would be investment in infrastructure and green technology — including electric cars — and that people would be given the skills they needed to work in the post-Covid-19 economy.
Mr Johnson said young people faced the highest risk of losing jobs and being out of work for a long time, raising the spectre of 1980s-style unemployment. “Young people, I believe, should be guaranteed an apprenticeship,” he added.
His statement was welcomed by Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who has campaigned for such a pledge.
“This could be a genuinely revolutionary policy,” he said. “What I have been proposing is that you offer every young person aged 16 to 25 an apprenticeship.”
Under Mr Halfon’s proposal, businesses would be reimbursed for the cost of providing training, apart from the expense of the government’s apprenticeship levy.
Mr Johnson said last week he and chancellor Rishi Sunak would be giving details of a jobs and skills package in late June or early July.
The number of people claiming unemployment-related welfare benefits rose 69 per cent to 2.1m in April, a record month on month increase, according to data published by the Office for National Statistics.
A total of 8.7m jobs have been furloughed under the government’s scheme to support companies and their employees through the crisis, but there are fears about redundancies when businesses have to start contributing to the cost of the programme from August.
Mr Halfon, chair of the Commons education select committee, said it was vital that the prime minister now “evangelised” about the benefits of an apprenticeship, making clear it enjoyed parity of status to a university qualification.
The Conservatives promised in their 2019 general election manifesto a £3bn national skills fund to be spent over five years, starting in 2021.
Mr Halfon said the fund could be directed towards the new apprenticeship plan.
Since 2017 apprenticeships in England have been funded through the government’s levy scheme, with employers whose annual wage bill exceeds £3m required to set aside the equivalent of 0.5 per cent of that sum for workplace based training.
But despite offering employers the freedom to frame apprenticeship standards for what they deem to be the most important skills needed, the scheme has struggled to raise the level of participation in training.