Raising the profile of apprenticeships

Features editor

It’s National Apprenticeship Week, although you could be forgiven for not knowing. For something that’s supposed to be a key part of the UK’s education and training policy, everyone’s been curiously quiet about it. It seems like our old adversary, public perception, is once again causing trouble.

Apprenticeships are an often-neglected but valuable way of starting a career. Ensuring that necessary skills are imparted in a work environment, they used to be a vital component of many industries. They’re still important in engineering. Not everybody has the disposition for academic study. Qualifications achieved while working are just as valid as those earned at a university or college.

Indeed, sometimes those are the same qualifications. For many engineering companies, apprenticeships continue into sponsored courses, both full-time and part time, and the apprentices graduate as part of their career, generally debt-free, and with all the experience, contacts and bank balance of someone who’s been in industry for several years. We’ve heard stories of people coming out of mechanical engineering degree courses who start work not knowing what a gasket is.

So is there still a stigma to apprenticeships? It does seem that way. Even the few press releases we’ve received seem reticent. One tells us that Vince Cable welcomed the expansion of British Airways’ successful apprenticeship scheme, set to take on 120 students this year; this, we’re told, ‘will give more students the opportunity to become full-time employees of British Airways.’ Will it? Will it really? Thanks for telling us. How enthusiastic that sounds. Tempted? Probably not.

Perhaps the problem is to do with the breadth of apprenticeships. You can become an apprentice at companies as diverse as BAE Systems, McDonalds, and probably Supacuts hairdressers down the road. Some of these sound more tempting than others. There’s also a lingering suspicion about it; something of the whiff of the widely-derided Youth Training Schemes of the 1980s, which were seen as a pretext to keep 16- to 24-year-olds off the unemployment figures, and (often, but not always, unfairly) as a licence for employers to exploit cheap labour while providing minimal training.

There are things that could be done to correct this. One of them might be to provide schools with some more incentive to guide pupils towards apprenticeships, if that’s the appropriate route for them. At the moment, university entrances are counted on the school league tables; apprenticeships could also be factored into the scores. Definitely, schools need more information about apprenticeships, what they are, and what they offer: some reassurance of the equivalence of apprenticeships with different organisations would be useful.

There needs to be a perception that starting an apprenticeship is not a failure. While readers of The Engineer are united in thinking that UK society needs to put a higher value on the status of engineers, we also need to recognise that there are many routes to achieving that position, and all of them are valid.