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The underwhelming reality of UK apprenticeships

Few would argue that apprenticeships — once the lifeblood of UK industry — are anything other than vital if we’re to grow the UK’s engineering economy.

For industry they represent an opportunity to gather and develop precisely the skills it needs to compete and develop. For young people, they offer the chance to gain skills on the job and, in some cases, earn a degree without committing to a lifetime of debt.

Recent years have seen a renewed focus on driving up the number of apprenticeships and there does appear to have been genuine progress. In 2011, around 457,000 people started an apprenticeship, a 63.5  per cent increase on the previous year. And, over the past few days, a host of major engineering employers, including BMW, BAE, Jaguar Land Rover and Siemens, have all announced significant increases in their apprentice intake.

But are the statistics as positive as they sound?

Earlier this week, government skills minister John Hayes boasted that the UK now has the biggest apprenticeship programme in its history. A claim made on the back of the news that coffee-chain Starbucks is to offer 45 barista training ‘apprenticeships’ a month.

This, it seems, is the underwhelming reality of the UK’s lauded apprenticeship programme. Indeed, according to the national audit office’s (NAO) latest annual report, only 33 per cent of UK apprenticeships are at an advanced level, 19 per cent of 2011 apprenticeships lasted for less than 6 months and the most popular subject was customer service. What’s more, the hundreds of places offered by the UK’s top engineering companies pale alongside the thousands of ‘apprenticeships’ offered ever year by burger giant McDonald’s. It’s probably also worth mentioning that the national minimum wage for the first year of an apprenticeship is £2.60 per hour.

Now, important as it is that the UK has a skills base to support our modern, nationwide demand for a decent cup of coffee, there’s clearly a bit of confusion around about what an apprenticeship is. You simply can’t equate a four-year apprenticeship at Jaguar Land Rover with a four-month coffee-making course, but in the political drive to reduce unemployment figures both positions appear to carry equal statistical weight.

This should be of concern to industry. Engineering apprenticeships are, and we agree with government here, critically important to the UK’s hi-tech economy. What’s more they’re gaining in popularity, and have some genuine momentum behind them. But attempt to re-badge any form of vocational training as an apprenticeship and the concept is immediately devalued, becomes less attractive to youngsters and industry alike, and that momentum is lost.

There are many reasons the definition is slipping: the inevitable political desire to shore up success with statistics, a desire in some sectors to get the government to subsidise low-skilled labour costs, and a well-intentioned effort to create employment opportunities for people of all abilities. But if apprenticeships really are to deliver the growth that they could it’s time to start taking them a bit more seriously.

Readers' comments (38)

  • Along with the recent downgrading of engineering 'O' levels this really shows what this government really means when it promises to recover our wealth by returning us to a manufacturing industry.
    The problem is that anything associated with manufacturing is really a long term investment, it requires investment in people and skills and that takes time, lots of it - beyond that of the normal life of a Parliament. So all we get is platitudes and little else.

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  • The story about Starbucks 'apprenticeships' reminded me of an old guy i used to work with in the early 80's when I was an apprentice. He served his time as an apprentice in a Birmingham foundry in the 60's. His first week was spent 'making tea' for everyone. When he complained that he wanted to do more than make tea, he was told that 'when he could make the tea properly, he could move onto something a little more challenging' Will Starbucks be ofering a HND in Coffee making?

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  • Having been deprived of an apprenticeship when i was of the right age I can definately vouch for the need for high quality vocational engineering technician level training and experience for all those going to complete education to post graduate level and go into Design / R&D activities in the UK Engineering Industry. Unfortunetly however I see a more fundimental concern of parents not instillling into thier children a basic sense of the how,why,when questioning mentality that would go quite well with Vocational / Industry learning. Too many people simply do not want to risk anything in thier strive to survive the work place.

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  • As employer of a small number of engineering apprentices in a manufacturing company in the South West of the UK this is an interesting read.

    Isn't it about time that the UK 'plc' stopped always trying to make the stats look better than they actually are?

    I agree with the author of this piece that people who use the stats should do so with extreme care.

    It is also important that the people who are being told they are getting an 'apprenticeship' understand what they are actually getting.

    Whatever happened to honesty and openness?

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  • We really do need to differenciate between "Apprentices" and "Engineering Apprentices".
    It is the engineering skills we have lost and need to replace, it is engineering (manufacturing) that creates wealth.

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  • I started my apprenticeship in 1953 with the Southern Electricity Board, in Southampton, and even though I have never worked as an electrician, I would not change any of it. I learned a lot about life, and respect for others and their property. The downgrading of the apprenticeship programmes to include making coffee is a shame.

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  • The worth of degrees was undermined by the expansion of higher education in this country. It now seems the same will apply to apprenticeships. These should essentially be for the craftsmen/women & technicians of industry. Once the term is used for [at best] training semi-skilled jobs in food retailing & the like, its value is reduced. This is a symptom of the dumbing-down of training & education in the UK. If it carries on as it has done, we'll soon be a nation having many highly qualified idiots...

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  • We train technicians from scratch for cable and wiring loom manufacture and PCB assembly. The timescale to train is 2 years minimum across the range of skills needed, yet the training is not recognised by any formal qualification. We use, instead, an international certification scheme. I do not say that this equates to to some high level engineering apprenticeships, but it is none-the-less a high skill area that should be recognised. High skill in any vocational sector should be recognised, and I know of plenty of engineering apprenticeships that are at a very minimal standard. The issue, surely, is the level the bar is set at, which in most current apprenticeships is much too low - including some engineering offerings.

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  • It seems as though a better spelling capability, or perhaps just an understanding of how to use the basic spell-checking functions embedded in most MS products, could help some of your "Have your say" contributors to avoid glaring errors that detract attention away from the message they are trying to put over. If, as engineers, we cannot communicate in a professional way then we cannot expect to be taken seriously when defending our profession or commenting on education or training.

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  • I was lucky. I had a four year indentured electrical apprenticeship with Boots. Stood me in great stead and I am proud to say, even 25 years out of the game, that I was an apprentice - a proper one. And I make a mean cup of tea. Think I was one of the last dedicated trades apprentice before it went all multi-skilling.

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