Fair Work in modern and graduate apprenticeships

We commissioned this research to explore opportunities to embed Fair Work First principles in the modern and graduate apprenticeship offer in Scotland.

Part One: Introduction, aims and objectives


This research was commissioned by The Scottish Government to explore opportunities to embed Fair Work First principles in the Modern and Graduate Apprenticeship offer in Scotland. The Fair Work Action Plan (2019)[1] sets out how The Scottish Government will deliver their ambitions on fair work across Scotland. Fair work is central to Scotland's Economic Strategy and can deliver a range of benefits to employers, employees/workers and the Scottish economy. The Fair Work Convention's Fair Work Framework (2016)[2] identifies five core dimensions of fair work and emphasises the role of effective voice as critical to the achievement of the other dimensions:

  • Security – including fair pay and minimally the Real Living Wage (RLW), no inappropriate use of zero-hour contracts and flexible working aligned to caring responsibilities;
  • Opportunity – including access to employment and to job/career development opportunities at work;
  • Respect – including respect for health and well-being, family life and work-life balance, and for contribution, whatever the role;
  • Effective Voice - enabling workers at all levels to have a voice that is listened to and influential, including through union recognition and collective bargaining; and
  • Fulfilling work – that utilises skills and invests in training, learning and development.

Following the adoption of the Fair Work Framework, The Scottish Government developed the Fair Work First approach. This approach asks employers who deliver procured public services in Scotland, or who receive Scottish Government grant funding, to adopt fair working practices, specifically:

  • appropriate channels for effective voice, such as trade union recognition;
  • investment in workforce development;
  • no inappropriate use of zero hours contracts;
  • action to tackle the gender pay gap and create a more diverse and inclusive workplace; and
  • payment of the real Living Wage.[3]

The Scottish Government committed to extending the Fair Work First criteria to as many public funding streams, business support grants and public contracts as possible by the end of the 2021 parliamentary term. This commitment envelopes the Apprenticeship Family and all Scottish Government-funded frameworks. From 2020/21, Skills Development Scotland (SDS) will apply Fair Work First criteria to all providers awarded contracts to deliver a number of its training programmes, including Modern Apprenticeships (MAs)[4] and Graduate Apprenticeships (GAs)[5]. The contractual terms include a requirement that contractors promote Fair Work First to employers.

This research explores opportunities to embed Fair Work First in the offer of these apprenticeship programmes. There is a limited pre-existing evidence base on awareness of the Fair Work First criteria and the views of employers, training providers and apprentices; of how the Fair Work First criteria might align with the distinctive characteristics and context of the apprentice role; or on potential implementation issues.

Research aims and objectives

This research project was commissioned to provide evidence on the applicability, relevance, opportunities and potential mechanisms/options for embedding Fair Work First principles in the Apprenticeship Family. The overall aim of the research is to explore opportunities to embed Fair Work First principles in the MA and GA offer by engaging the views of stakeholders, apprentices and employers. The main research objectives are:

  • to consider whether the Fair Work First criteria require adaptation in order to be applied to MAs and GAs;
  • to formulate initial recommendations (e.g. options, potential mechanisms) to support the implementation of Fair Work First criteria; and
  • to identify potential approaches to ensuring that apprenticeships remain an attractive offer following implementation of Fair Work First criteria.

To address these objectives, the research focused on the following distinct areas of interest:

  • employers', and other key stakeholders' views on the Fair Work First criteria;
  • employers', apprentices' and other key stakeholders' views on the most appropriate mechanism (or set of mechanisms) for embedding and evidencing FW within the apprentice role/offer and in apprentices' workplaces;
  • the role of potential incentives and barriers to employers' engagement with apprenticeships, and employers' views on their response if apprenticeship funding was subject to greater conditionality in the form of Fair Work First;
  • the views of stakeholders and employers on an apprenticeship programme that guarantees apprenticeships for those facing difficulties entering the labour market, including those who are care-experienced or those with disabilities; and
  • forms of advice and support that could be made available to employers to enhance the provision of fair work in apprenticeships.

Key to identifying approaches that will ensure that apprenticeships remain an attractive option also requires understanding of:

  • whether apprentices view themselves as an 'apprentice', as opposed to an employee, learner or student;
  • employer and apprentice views on whether Fair Work First should amend existing age-related pay rates for apprentices;
  • what makes apprenticeships an attractive option to those seeking to develop work-based skills while in employment; and
  • the extent to which Fair Work First would make apprenticeships more attractive to those seeking to develop work-based skills while in employment.

This research was commissioned then paused before the start of fieldwork due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While not originally envisaged in the research specification, the research objectives were revised in July 2020 to include the collection of data on the impact of the pandemic on the progress of apprenticeships.

Research Design

To address the research aims and objectives, a flexible qualitative methodological design was adopted based on an informed deliberative approach. The intention was to conduct semi-structured depth interviews with key stakeholders and focus groups with employers and apprentices. It was anticipated that the main fieldwork phase would include six focus groups (three with employers and apprentices respectively). Following a formal contractual 'pause' to the research (in late March 2020) as a result of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated public health restrictions, the research plan was revised in July 2020.

A short feasibility exercise was conducted with SDS representatives in October 2020 to assess whether the research could still proceed effectively in an economic environment dominated by the extensive use of furlough, continuing lockdown restrictions in key sectors and reports of apprentice redundancies in particular areas such as hospitality and retail. The outcome of this feasibility exercise was twofold: first, that apprenticeships appeared to be 'holding up' and being sustained in key and essential areas such as construction and engineering; but second, that the outlook was significantly worse in the hospitality and retail sectors. On this basis it was decided to continue the research but exclude employers and apprentices in these sectors because of the continuing uncertainty, not just about the numbers of apprenticeships but also due to the very particular challenges faced by employers and apprentices in these sectors.

The revised research design included the suspension of all face-to-face contact with research participants in line with public health restrictions. It was decided that telephone/online interviews were a more appropriate method of data collection than focus groups in light of restrictions on direct social contact, and could provide more opportunities to explore and develop a deeper understanding of the impact of the pandemic. It should be acknowledged, however, that the shift to telephone/online interviews potentially negated some of the possible benefits of focus groups, for example, where a more interactive approach might have stimulated debate on 'new' or 'novel' issues with participants. Switching to depth interviews also significantly extended the fieldwork phase of the research and the time required to analyse findings.

Pre-interview information provision: in order that the research participants were able to give considered reflection on both fair work as it is understood in Scotland and the specific nature of the Fair Work First criteria, all participants were provided summary information in advance of the interviews. This pre-interview information ensured that participants had an opportunity to consider the issues that underpin fair work and Fair Work First and were not being asked about these 'cold' and uninformed.

Interview data was collated from three groups: key stakeholders, employers and apprentices. Key stakeholders were representatives from agencies and bodies relevant to SDS and apprenticeships and trade unions. Stakeholders were identified from consultation with members of the Research Advisory Group (RAG) and other known sources. Employers were selected to reflect the wider population of apprentice employers (including variation in terms of employer size, sector and local labour market). All apprentices were currently engaged in GAs or MAs at the time of the research and all who took part in the research were offered a financial incentive (their choice of a £40 retail voucher) to encourage participation.

After undertaking and conducting an initial analysis of the data from the semi-structured depth interviews the final piece of fieldwork was a roundtable discussion. Roundtable participants included stakeholders and employers who had taken part in the research. The roundtable involved providing summary feedback on some of the initial key findings and a discussion around a number of important issues raised by the study. The output of the roundtable discussion was particularly useful and has been incorporated throughout in findings.

Fieldwork design and sample

The fieldwork was designed to access relevant populations of employers and apprentices and to cover key variations in workforce size, sector and local labour markets (employers) and apprentices (MA and GA). Three local labour market areas were selected for the research: Glasgow, Perth and Inverness. These areas broadly reflected urban, semi-rural and rural geographies and labour markets. Apprentices and employers were contacted through a range of channels (e.g. email, telephone) and invited to participate in the research.[6] Details of the number of research participants by stakeholder group is provided in Table 1.

A more detailed breakdown of the sample is included in Appendix A. This shows that representation across key employers of varying workforce size (including micro-employers) and key sectors was delivered. Similarly, with apprentices, a sample spread across key GA and MA frameworks and sectors was achieved. Apprentices were also spread across age groups and there was a 52:48% spilt in favour of female research participants.

Table 1: Research Participants by Type and Local Labour Market (n)
Participant Group Glasgow Inverness Perth Total
Stakeholders - - - 10
Employers[7] 6 6 6 18
GA Apprentices[8] 8 - - 8
MA Apprentices - 6 6 12
Roundtable Discussion Group - - - 27

Throughout the report the term 'apprentice' is used to include all those who took part in a SDS-recognised GA and MA apprenticeship framework. However, it is important to understand that although an individual or their employer was currently participating in an MA or GA programme, this did not mean that individuals or their employers used or identified with the term 'apprentice'. It was clear from the interviews with 'apprentices', that people in younger age groups and those with less formal work experience, and those employers with dedicated 'apprentice' grades and structures, were the most likely to use the term 'apprentice' to describe their working status and role. This included all of those in the GA group undertaking 4-year degree apprenticeship training. MA apprenticeship frameworks, however, include those training for shorter time periods (e.g. 12, 18 or 24 months). These types of courses are often used to upskill existing employees, and research participants in these groups were more likely to describe themselves as 'employees' to reflect their status (although in Scotland all SDS-framework apprentices are formally employees). This difference in terminology reflects a common (though not wholly accurate) understanding of the term 'apprentice' as meaning relatively young workers with limited experience working in skilled and semi-skilled trades in construction and engineering. In areas such as social care and digital services, those who were formally apprentices said that their period of MA training or study was only one part of their wider job tasks and role, and that it was easier to use the term 'employee' to avoid any misplaced client concerns about their inexperience and suitability for their job, roles and tasks. Consequently, experienced older workers largely saw themselves as 'employees'.

Interview guides were developed for stakeholders, employers, GAs and MAs. Interviews tended to last between 25 and 50 minutes, although some were significantly longer. All interviews were recorded (where consent was given). Interviews with stakeholders took place over November 2020 to March 2021; with employers over January 2021 to March 2021 and with apprentices over January to February 2021. The roundtable took place in April 2021. The fieldwork was shaped by the ongoing public health regulations arising from the pandemic. The data and insights must be seen as arising within this distinctive context.

A thematic analytical approach was adopted, guided by the research objectives and the extant literature on both apprenticeships and conditionality in public funding, alongside research team knowledge of the broader skills, learning and fair work landscape. Themes were cross-checked across the SCER research team. Research interviews were partially transcribed, stratified both thematically and by research respondent type, using Excel to assist qualitative data manipulation and analysis. Engaging with the range of groups and individuals covered in this research allows for multiple and potentially conflicting issues to surface and ensures that no single stakeholder view (collective or individual) dominates the analysis. The data allow for a wide-ranging assessment of the views of different groups on opportunities to embed Fair Work First principles in the MA and GA offer, and for variation in views by participant sub-group to be highlighted where appropriate. To protect the anonymity of individual participants and their respective organisations/employers, all illustrative quotes presented in the findings section are attributed to the broad stakeholder groupings outlined in Table 1 only and related non-identifying information.

This research, like much other work and labour market-related activity, was significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the impact on research methods and timetable has been outlined previously. The fieldwork was delayed but was ongoing during the second period of formal lockdown in October 2020 and the third lockdown from early January 2021. This meant that the sample of stakeholders, employers and apprentices were, like many members of the working population, working from home and subject to a set of new, multiple and competing demands on their working and domestic commitments, which created challenges in accessing research participants and scheduling fieldwork.

Part Two of this report outlines the research findings. Part Three offers concluding reflections on the Fair Work First criteria and their adoption and adaptation into the apprenticeship family in Scotland, as well as, offering recommendations on how this can be best achieved.


Email: Scotland-Apprenticeship-Family@gov.scot

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