Is Britain experiencing an apprenticeship renaissance?

3 min read

Ann Watson, managing director of EAL (EMTA Awards Limited), considers whether the UK really is experiencing an Apprenticeship Renaissance.

For anyone considering a career in engineering, an apprenticeship offers the opportunity to learn from trained professionals, while applying theoretical knowledge on a day-by-day basis. This valuable combination of skills development is why apprenticeships have long been seen as the gold standard of ‘on-the-job’ training and now, as a way of rejuvenating the UK economy.

It seems apprenticeships are ‘back in fashion’. So, are we really going through an ‘Apprentice Renaissance’, as some say? Yes, to an extent. However, engineering and craft industries have a long way to go before achieving the number of apprentices needed to deliver the high-tech economy that government aspires to; particularly as competition from emerging power-houses such as China and India grows and threatens our vulnerable post-recession industry.

The glory days

Historically, many see the glory days of apprenticeships as the 1950s. In reality however, we don’t need to go so far back. Many industry professionals regard the 1980s as the last heyday for apprenticeships. It was a time when businesses, such as Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, were encouraged to train and this had a positive affect on industry. 

In 1964 the government introduced a training levy which firms had to pay regardless of whether or not they supported and delivered training.

Until 1991, a firm’s levy was calculated on the number of employees and its total wages bill. As a result, big business generally had their own ‘in-house’ training academies, which trained above the point of their own requirements.

This ensured they were able to retain the best and the brightest, while the ‘surplus’ of trained and skilled professionals were free to pursue jobs in organisations that would not normally have been able to incur the cost of training. Many of these skilled professionals even went on to start up their own businesses and have become our present captains of industry.

Companies in the 1980s were incentivised to train as a result of the training levy because there was a direct financial implication. In our own industry, the Engineering Industry Training Board (EITB) also encouraged firms to train and, as a result, this helped to up-skill the workforce. The benefit to smaller organisations (SMEs) was significant, as it was to wider industry. At the same time, industry expansion was stimulated by the rapid development in computer-led innovation and the introduction of a plethora of new technologies. This created sufficient demand for skilled workers, which meant firms were needed to hire apprentices and deliver the training to get ahead.

Once the levy was removed, the incentive to train was reduced, and with the advent of New Labour in 1997, there seemed to be a shift away from craft -based industries. Partly as a result of emerging markets – with their cheaper labour costs – taking a lead in manufacturing, but also as service and white collar industries took priority as the main driver of the UK’s economic growth. 

Coalition government

Fast-forward to 2010 and we see a new consensus emerging. The Conservative-Liberal Coalition government, recognising the risk of putting all our eggs in one basket, is recognising the vital role industry plays and wants to foster a balanced economy. This means an increased focus on the skilled industries, and by default, greater numbers of apprentices.

The government has pledged to create 50,000 apprentice places as a first step. It has also announced National Insurance (NI) breaks for small and start-up businesses who take on apprentices. But will this be enough? When you consider the overall number of individuals starting engineering, manufacturing and technology (EMT) apprenticeships has fallen by 9.1 per cent since 2008, my concern is that it isn’t.

In a global marketplace, where firms compete primarily on cost, all businesses need to be incentivised to train. It is therefore crucial government rhetoric is underpinned by effective policy to deliver more EMT apprentices.

For too long now, degrees have been promoted as the preferred option over the vocational route; with the previous administration’s aiming to get 50 per cent of young people into university.

However, with a backdrop of increasing graduate unemployment leading to more graduates chasing fewer employment opportunities, combined with the rising cost of university education leading to more graduates leaving with record debt, I believe now is the time for an Apprentice Renaissance.

Industry has always been aware of the value of apprentices, an opinion this government seems to share. When talking about an Apprenticeship Renaissance, I’m pleased to see government actively endorsing apprenticeships and championing their role in achieving high-tech status for UK economy.

This offers real opportunities for young people – as well as those perhaps looking to retrain into the industry – today and in the future. 

There is the potential for manufacturing and engineering to form the backbone of the UK economy; and in this, apprentices will play a key role.

Government needs to work closely with awarding organisations to ensure the skills industry need are incorporated into qualifications, as well as incentivising businesses to guarantee the apprentice places are available.

Figures for the number of individuals starting engineering, manufacturing and technology apprenticeships (EMT).

16-18 year olds:                 

2007/2008 – 23,870            

2008/2009 – 19,912            

19-24 year olds:

2007/2008 – 14,661

2008/2009 – 13,158

25+ years:

2007/2008 – 2,009

2008/2009 – 3,772

(Source: The Data Service)