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.