The word ‘apprentice’ has made something of a comeback recently, no doubt largely thanks to Sir Alan Sugar growling ‘you’re fired’ at a succession of hapless would-be reality TV stars.
Gordon Brown’s government is rather keen on apprentices too, as this week’s Queen’s Speech and recent announcements by ministers have made clear.
The government wants a dramatic rise in the number of apprenticeships (an extra 90,000 by 2013) as part of a strategy that will compel by law young people to stay in education or training until they are 18.
In this context, ask people what they think about an ‘apprenticeship’ and most people will forget all about Alan Sugar. Instead, the phrase evokes images from the era of most of our fathers and grandfathers, of earnest, diligent young men and women training for what they know will be a long and often a lifetime’s career.
Of course the apprenticeship is still very much alive and well in a very modern context. Some of our biggest companies offer excellent, over-subscribed apprenticeship schemes that give those who enrol on them a great start in life.
The circle that needs squaring here, however, is that – by the government’s own admission – the number of jobs that can be categorised as ‘low-skilled’ is set to plunge over the next decade. Where these jobs will go is less clear, but presumably they are expected to join the exodus of outsourced employment and head east or south.
What will be left behind will be a hole in the economy that can, by definition, only be filled by the creation of more high-skilled jobs.
Where will those jobs come from, we wonder. From the public sector? Well, it is true that the payroll of the state has grown over the last decade, but how much longer that can go on is questionable.
What about the service sector? Retail certainly does its bit, but many of our service industries are already feeling the chill wind of outsourcing themselves.
The professions? More interested in graduates. So that leaves engineering, manufacturing and technology-based industries. It is here, in the businesses of those reading this article, that the most will be expected.
The potential problem for the government, and the rest of us, will come if the expansion of apprenticeships is seen as some sort of quick-fix, relying on employers to take in an unwilling and sometimes unable army of 16 and 17-year-olds who would rather be somewhere else but have accepted that they cannot escape the long arm of the law.
This would be a sort of industrial national service, and one that does no good for employer or apprentice alike.
If, on the other hand, we see a genuine engagement between government and employers to get the right people with the right basic skills into the right training places, we may have a fighting chance of keeping our future on track.