Why apprenticeships can’t just materialise

Features editor

Apprenticeships have come under scrutiny in the latest round of electioneering, but they’re too important to be relegated to politicians’ petty point-scoring

The electioneering bandwagon rolls on, and much to our surprise draws battle lines over a subject of much relevance to engineers and manufacturers. Ed Miliband and colleagues on Monday set up their lecterns at Jaguar Land Rover’s Wolverhampton factory, where they outlined a pledge for all school leavers ‘who obtain the grades’ to be guaranteed an apprenticeship — a total of 80,000 new places. This would be funded by a levy on bank bonuses. The Conservatives responded with a plan to create three million apprenticeships, funded by a benefits cap, while business secretary Vince Cable claimed that the fall in apprentice numbers under the Coalition concealed an increase in ‘more advanced appprenticeships’.

While it’s good to hear politicians supporting apprenticeships, which The Engineer has long advocated as a valuable route into engineering, it’s hard to take these promises and claims at face value. The most obvious response is that only employers can create apprenticeships. Governments can’t; and throwing money at employers, whatever the source, isn’t going to make them appear.

It’s worth going back to basic principles and looking at what an apprenticeship is supposed to be. It isn’t a company training course. It’s a programme of structured learning, organised around professional tasks (apprentices are employees, after all) supervised by mentors, interspersed with appropriate and relevant education, and ending with a recognised qualification. If that then ends with a job at the appropriate level with the company that provided the apprenticeship, then that’s a definite bonus; and if the apprenticeship is funded from the public purse (making apprentices effectively subsidised cheap labour), it could even be seen as a prerequisite.

It clearly isn’t something simple which any employer could just throw together. It needs designing; it needs collaboration with an institute of higher education to match up on-the-job tasks with appropriate academic content. Mentors might need to be trained. Smaller companies on important supply chains, often the repository of much expertise, are likely to be the ones which lack the resources to set up apprenticeships; yet also the most likely to offer valuable ones.

So it’s not enough for politicians to just talk of ‘guaranteeing’ apprenticeships. Manufacturing companies need to be told that they will be helped to establish valuable apprenticeships which bright and ambitious students will want to take; which parents can be reassured will provide real skills and prospects for their children; and which other companies will value as a guarantee of a skilled employee.

It shouldn’t be just another political football. Apprenticeships are not just an educational institution; they are an important way of forging bonds between industries and communities. They were what helped make Sheffield a ‘steel city’ and Derby a ‘railway town’, for example. They still fulfil that role in Germany, as one of our regular readers has pointed out in the comment thread for this week’s poll (although we hope the lederhosen are optional; the poll is open until next Tuesday, incidentally). It would be good to see cross-party collaboration in helping appenticeships spread and become more available, unlikely though that is when political points can be made. After all, the main parties seem to agree that they are important.