What do National Apprenticeship Week, National British Sandwich Week, and National Bed Month all have in common? Behavioural science has an answer. These are all attempts to raise the salience of their particular cause, encouraging awareness and timely decision-making, whether it’s to hire an apprentice or eat a British sandwich. As this week is National Apprenticeship Week (6th to 10th March) in the UK, it’s also a timely moment to review the work that BIT has been doing on apprenticeships for the past year.
Apprenticeships have become a government priority in part because they may help boost the UK’s productivity. Evidence shows that, on average, businesses see productivity gains of £10,000 per year for each apprentice they employ. And apprenticeships aren’t just good for businesses; they’re good for apprentices too. Eighty-nine per cent of apprentices reported satisfaction with their programme, with 83 per cent attributing it to improved career prospects. Facts like these have inspired the government’s ambitious target to deliver three million apprenticeship starts by 2020.
To encourage employers to invest more in apprenticeships, from April this year the government is introducing an Apprenticeship Levy that has loss aversion built in. Employers can use the funds they pay into the levy to spend on apprenticeship training – but if they don’t, they lose the money. As we wait to see how this change will impact the skills landscape, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has been working with the Skills Funding Agency to raise awareness of the levy and encourage employers to use it to grow their apprenticeship programmes.
We have now run two randomised controlled trials (RCTs) on government communications with employers. The first demonstrated that applying social norms and loss aversion in messaging, as well as chunking information into clear steps, increased the number of employers consulting information on the levy. In the second trial, with a sample of 700,000 employers, we were able to tease out which behavioural effects had the most impact. We found that using a clear and simple message highlighting the business benefits of apprenticeships was the best way to get employers to engage with government information on the levy. This message performed better than others that encouraged employers to plan for the levy, highlighted the social impact of apprenticeships, or advised that apprenticeships are a good way to ‘future-proof’ the business.
BIT is also supporting the development of the government’s online tool that employers will use to track and spend their apprenticeship funding. The aim is to design a portal centred on user needs that will help employers spend their apprentice training budgets efficiently. We have been advising on behavioural science principles to help users forecast the funding they will receive, provide timely reminders to complete transactions, and encourage the selection of high-quality apprenticeship standards for their training needs.
We are also looking at new ways to support apprentices, with a specific focus on raising perceptions of prestige around apprenticeships and enabling underrepresented populations to access this route to employment. Whilst the government is taking action to boost the quality of apprenticeships by creating new standards, perceptions of prestige are lagging behind. BIT’s qualitative research with young people revealed how even some of those taking this route view it as an option for the less capable. We are now developing RCTs to test ways of highlighting the value of apprenticeships which we hope will encourage current learners to persist with their programme.
We will also be trialling interventions to boost diversity among apprenticeship recruits. In 2015/16, individuals from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds represented roughly 18.8 per cent of applicants to apprenticeship vacancies but only 10.5 per cent of apprenticeship starts. Earlier research that BIT carried out with the Learning & Work Institute found that a number of barriers (such as parental expectations, lack of knowledge of apprenticeships, and geographical constraints) depress both BAME applications and starts. Later this year we should have results from both these trials, which we hope will provide answers on how organisations that currently hire apprentices – or are considering it – can make their programmes as effective as possible.