The Importance of Apprenticeships

There’s still a great deal of empty rhetoric about the urgent need to rebalance the country’s economy but so far little evidence of any real long term action. The politicians have fixated on the need to re-establish an effective manufacturing base neglecting or avoiding the other equally important aspects that caused the problems in the first case. They remain wedded, indeed addicted, to the financial services and the city which is now widely discredited and to a large extent got us into the current crisis. Baling out the banks and financial institutions and printing money through quantitative easing reinforces the view that the country’s economy will continue to be based on consumerism and housing bubbles and a misguided belief in a debt and loan regime.

One crucial element in creating a more balanced economy with a revitalised and effective manufacturing base is a highly qualified workforce. This is where apprenticeships play a key role in producing a highly qualified workforce and must become the top priority on the education and training agenda. I would also suggest that for this to become a reality the apprenticeship programmes must be preferentially treated in order to attract and retain people. Apprenticeships along with technical and vocational education and training have been perceived as second best when compared with the supposed academic programmes such as GCSE/GCEs/Degrees.

One aspect that should not be introduced is a load regime and yet that is exactly what the government has done, mirroring the model for HE students with all the attendant problems that will cause. Apprentices aged over 24 starting on level 3 or 4 programmes can take out a loan for their tuition fees and the on-job training if the employer cannot or will not cover these costs. The apprentices will start paying back the loan when their income reaches £21,000 per annum.  Any loan scheme will most certainly deter people of all ages from enrolling on these programmes; quite rightly they will be reluctant to incur such debts. The new Advanced and Higher-level apprenticeship programmes must encourage and attract committed and enthusiastic people who will include precisely those who would have been deterred by the HE loan regimes. The evidence already (November 2013) indicates that only 77 have applied against the target set by the government of 25,000 for the period of 2013/2014.

The massive challenge facing this country can be exemplified in the recent survey carried out by the Royal Academy of Engineering that highlighted the need to create 830,000 professional scientists, engineers and technologists between 2012 and 2020; that represents over 100,000 per annum. Bearing in mind the pathetic number of graduates currently in these disciplines from Further and Higher Education Institutes, private training providers and apprenticeship programmes these targets represent an impossible task whatever the government says. The additional money promised, namely £49 million, is totally inadequate to tackle this problem considering it could take a generation to tackle and resolve the problems in supplying people with qualifications involving scientific and mathematical specialisms.

The long standing reluctance among people to pursue these subjects particularly in the technical and vocational e.g. engineering and applied science disciplines has cultural roots and has been a major contributing factor to the low supply of people into engineering and manufacturing industries. Current 25% of skilled workers in manufacturing and engineering are immigrants – some commentators put the figure closer to 50%. Other problems associated with engineering apprenticeships are the high costs of such programmes and that demand for places far exceeds the supply. The time to recoup the costs of a typical engineering apprenticeship programme is 3.5 years and there are already 11 applicants for every place currently available. This latter point is due to the fact that there are relatively few engineering companies in the country and equally worrying is the fact that employers still adopt a short term view of investment in training – another example of the British disease of short termism which fails to see the long term benefits in investment.

There has to be a fundamental shift in government policy across a wide range of issues including massive investment in technical and vocational education, training and apprenticeship programmes. This must be coupled with developing consistent policies and longer term support to colleges, employers and students wishing to pursue such disciplines even if it means introducing positively discriminatory and preferential approaches for financial support for the apprentices.  In fact because of the importance of this issue cross party support is urgently needed with effective partnerships between professional bodies, employers and employer organisations and other interested parties.

Equally important, as has been said many times, an effective system of Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) has to be introduced which provides valid, honest broker ship and up to date data and information on the economic and business futures to people of all ages. Employers must also be encouraged through tax incentives to offer programmes of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) to all their employees to make certain that they are members of a flexible, adaptable and productive labour force. Industries must also increase their productivity, creativity and competiveness in order to compete in the ever expanding global markets. Recent surveys have stressed the importance of apprenticeships, with the Centre for Economics and Business Research and Barclays identifying that the economy could be boosted and benefit by £4.4 billion pounds a year with apprentices entering the workforce. One survey estimates each apprentice could contribute £214 per week to the economy on entering the workforce.

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