Politicians don’t create apprenticeships, employers do

Senior reporter

Calls for “three million apprenticeships” will go unmet without more fundamental change than extra government funding.

The announcement of two specialist colleges to train apprentices for HS2 is welcome news for anyone keen to see a revival of widespread quality vocational training – and for the young people of Birmingham and Doncaster.

Apprenticeships have become a political pin-badge in recent years, as evidenced by the party conferences of the past few weeks. At the Labour event, Ed Miliband declared his desire to see as many young people take up apprenticeships as go to university. While over at the Conservative conference this week, David Cameron has indicated his desire to fund three million apprenticeships over the next five years, paid for with welfare cuts.

The principle of raising the status and popularity of apprenticeships is an admirable one. Young people are too often encouraged to enrol on academic courses without considering whether quality vocational learning (which may lead to a degree) could be more suitable for them. Some are even actively discouraged from doing so thanks an unhelpful breed of educational snob. Worse off are those who are misled into taking up poor-quality courses that are badged as “degrees” but in reality are of little value in the workplace.

It should be the norm that most employers offer higher-level apprenticeships that train the skilled workforce of tomorrow and widen the options for people seeking to embark on a career. The engineering sector, of course, leads in this respect: two thirds of the members of manufacturers’ organisation EEF are planning to recruit an apprentice in the next 12 months, and the average length of their training programmes is four years. Those who moan about school leavers lacking practical skills or who call for more immigration to fill the skills gap would do well to consider how apprenticeships can deliver a high-level, homegrown workforce.

But while ambitions to increase the number of apprenticeships are to be welcomed, politicians also need to remember that it is employers and not government that creates apprentices. As such, political pressure and state funding will only go so far. Unlike universities, which thanks to changing higher education policy have turned degree courses into a product to be sold on the free market regardless of genuine need, employers can only offer training where there is work.

Earlier this week, EEF made the interesting move of calling for the abolition of the apprentice rate of the minimum wage and for new starters to be paid the higher age-specific rate instead. Its argument was that bringing apprentice pay requirements in line with those of other employees would simplify the system and help raise the status of vocational training. Moreover, most EEF members already pay their apprentices more than the required minimum and, crucially, less than one per cent say they would offer more apprenticeships if this minimum was cut.

Given this, and the fact that training schemes tend to be vastly oversubscribed, limits on the number of apprentices – at least in engineering – don’t appear to be due to a lack of money. Anecdotally too, The Engineer has heard from firms who complain of being hassled to take on apprentices that they don’t need. ‘It’s just wasting money because the job isn’t there,’ said one company boss, himself a former apprentice. ‘If the job was there I’d take him or her.’

The government has actually doubled the number of apprenticeships in the last few years. Yet behind this apparent success lies the caveat that most of this growth has come in the form of training for existing employees aged over 25.

There has more recently been a crack down on those courses less than 12 months in duration or not attached to a specific employer being branded “apprenticeships”. But we still appear to be a long way from seeing a big increase in companies offering young people the kind of higher-level training opportunities that the engineering sector provides.

Without a genuine rebalancing of the economy, strong GDP growth and a fundamental shift in attitudes, the desire to build an apprentice system to rival that of Germany will go unmet – however many people’s benefits are cut. Not every town can have an HS2 college, after all.