The first three T-Level routes have now been launched and employer engagement will be critical for their success. Yet, our latest survey results show that employer awareness remains low and current economic conditions present a challenging environment to secure enough T-Level Industry Placements for the new routes.

If we didn’t have T-Levels

For far too long young people who don’t pursue the academic pathway – from A-levels to university - faced a confusing array of qualifications and post 16 options. The lack of a clear vocational pathway, from education to the labour market, means that many young people experience difficulties in transitioning into the world of work, leading to an increased risk of unemployment and underemployment. The lack of a strong technical education system also meant that the UK performs poorly on the provision of intermediate skills compared to other countries. In response, the Independent Panel on Technical Education, recommended streamlining the technical education system into 15 ‘high quality’ routes, with standards set by employers.

T-Level qualifications form the centrepiece of these reforms. T-Levels are new Level 3 technical qualifications (equivalent to A levels) and combine the technical knowledge and skills specific to an industry or occupation, relevant English, maths and digital skills, alongside a substantial industry placement of at least 45 days. As of September 2020, three of the technical routes have been launched – in construction, digital and education – and engaging employers will be critical to their success.

Employers and T-Levels

Yet, employer awareness of T-Levels and associated Industry Placements remains low. In June 2020 we surveyed 1,000 employers, via a YouGov representative panel, and found that just 28% of employers in England had heard of T-Levels. Moreover, of those who had heard of them, just 29% reported that they were planning to offer Industry Placements. 

Employers in the public sector (38%) and voluntary sector (34%) were more likely to have heard of T-Levels, compared to employers in the private sector (21%). However, private sector employers who had heard of T-Levels were much more likely to be planning to offer work placements (40%) compared to employers in the public (20%) or voluntary sectors (9%). This suggests that efforts to boost employer knowledge and awareness of the new qualifications could significantly boost the provision of Industry Placements, particularly amongst private sector employers.

COVID-19’s effect on T-levels

It is unfortunate that these new qualifications have been launched during a particularly challenging economic context. Many employers have scaled back on the provision of other forms of work placements to young people as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and disruption is likely to continue for some time. And the economic downturn will likely restrict access to opportunities further. 

Alongside this, the Government has recently launched, or scaled up, a variety of initiatives aimed at boosting youth employment – from traineeships, Kick Start and apprenticeship incentives – which while welcome, risks creating a confusing landscape for employers to navigate. There is also the risk that these may displace the provision of Industry Placement opportunities which have less generous financial support attached; employers are provided with just £750 for academic year 2020/21 to help cover the additional costs of organising these substantial work placements, compared to a £1,000 bonus per traineeships, £2,000 for hiring a 16-24 year old apprentice, and a wage subsidy of 6 months at the National Minimum Wage for a Kick Starter.

The new qualifications and the future of T-Levels

The strengthening of England’s technical education system is welcome and long overdue. The UK has a substantial gap – relative to other countries – in the provision of intermediate technical skills which T Levels, if they are successful, could help fill. We also know from our research that employers often complain about the work readiness of young people. These new qualifications, which aim to provide the behavioural and occupational competencies, alongside real experience of the world of work through a structured work placement, will help bridge the gap between education and the workplace. Yet to be successful, employer engagement and buy in is critical, and as the survey results show, there is still a considerable way to go to achieve this.

About the author

Lizzie Crowley, Senior Policy Adviser - Skills

Lizzie is a policy and research professional with over 13 years’ experience in the employment and skills arena, having worked with both the public and private sector to develop high-quality research to inform organisational practice, public policy and shape the public debate.

Prior to joining the CIPD Lizzie led The Work Foundation's research and policy development on the youth labour market – and has published a number of influential reports on youth unemployment. She has regularly appeared on national and regional TV and radio, including BBC Breakfast, BBC the One Show, the Today Programme and Channel 4 news. Lizzie graduated in Sociology and has a master's degree in Social Science Research Methods, both from the University of Glasgow.

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