Apprenticeships and other forms of vocational education traditionally offered a very clear path to a successful career for thousands of young people.
Apprenticeships are of enormous benefit, not only for each apprentice but also for the businesses training them. They can fill a skills gap and allow businesses the opportunity to match their future workforce around their specific needs. For apprentices there is the opportunity to learn on the job, build up knowledge and skills, gain qualiﬁcations and earn money all at the same time. They also gain excellent prospects for the future because they will have the knowledge and experience that employers really value and have been able to demonstrate a commitment to continuous learning and development.
Perhaps what has always been under-valued about apprenticeships is the part they played in the transition from childhood to adulthood, where supervisors and new workmates helped to keep them on the straight and narrow in their personal development as much as in their skills’ development.
Apprenticeship numbers fell dramatically during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The problem was exacerbated when the then Conservative government legislated to prevent councils from including minimum apprenticeship training requirements in their tenders for, for example, construction and highways’ schemes. The mantra was ‘The market will provide’. It didn’t.
Apprenticeship training collapsed. Many good local and regional construction companies were forced to cut their apprentice-training in the light of fierce competition from companies which didn’t invest in training. Unsurprisingly, this led to a shortage of electricians, plumbers, joiners, paviors and bricklayers. So, when the economy picked up, many private companies started importing skilled labour from abroad.
In 1997, there were just 65,000 apprenticeship starts in England. Between 1997 and 2010, the Labour governments invested more than £8 billion in apprenticeship training. In 2009/10, more than 273,000 young people started apprenticeship training – more than four times as many as 1997.
The 2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act was the first complete overhaul of apprenticeships’ legislation for more than 200 years. It established the entitlement to an apprenticeship place for every suitably qualified young person who wanted one. But, the coalition government has re-labeled all sorts of in-work short training courses as apprenticeships. They aren’t the apprenticeship schemes we need now and for the future.
Now, we have almost one million young people are now unemployed and the number out of work for more than 12 months has doubled in the last year. This is National Apprenticeship Week. The government could make a really positive step by announcing that all companies bidding for public contracts valued over £1m are required to demonstrate their commitment to apprentice training.
I’m pleased Sheffield City Council is one of a number of councils which are developing its procurement strategy to boost apprenticeship opportunities.