On a visit to Newcastle airport last year I met two apprentices – one was completing the last day of a three year mechanical engineering traineeship and preparing to start his first day as a permanent employee, and the other was a senior supervisor who had been the airport’s first ever mechanical engineer apprentice 40 years ago.
The way their stories intertwined is a powerful example of how apprenticeships change lives, across generations. That training and development of skills for life provides opportunities and advancement to those fortunate to start out as an apprentice, and employers benefit alike through the development and retention of bespoke trained, highly skilled and more often than not, loyal workers.
That is why I have supported apprenticeships so keenly since I was elected in 2010, and why I have been keen to put the heat on the coalition government to continue Labour’s work to promote good quality and properly funded apprenticeship places.
Through my private member’s bill on apprenticeships, I argued that all companies bidding for high value public contracts should have to demonstrate a commitment to apprenticeships and skills training if they want to reap the financial rewards of taxpayer funded projects. The £175bn of public money that is paid out to private firms every year shouldn’t be given out with no strings attached.
My proposal was backed by the TUC, Unite, and the Federation of Small Businesses, as well as many other business and trade association groups. It also gained support from across the political divide and had cross-party support in the Commons too.
However, from the start this government sent out worrying signals for the future direction of apprenticeships. One of the first things they did was to abolish Labour’s ‘apprenticeship guarantee’, which would have offered an apprenticeship place to every 16-18 year old who wanted one. They also abolished the ‘train to gain’ scheme, aimed at helping older workers get qualifications – but rebranded many of those trainees as apprentices and claimed a 60 per cent rise in the number of apprenticeships as a result.
Existing workplace training schemes have also been classified as apprenticeships, and the major concern is that this is all just to boost the figures.
Many would argue that the true measure of a successful apprenticeship policy is how successfully young school leavers are targeted to move on to training that will lead to work. But the number of 16 to 18 year olds starting apprenticeships over the past year went down in the south-west, the north-west and the north-east of England. In addition, 20 per cent of places lasted for six months or less, which does not fit the profile of an apprenticeship providing skills for life.
To be fair to them, the government have now recognised the short-termism of some of their initial actions, and new rules now mean that apprenticeships for 16-18 year olds will have to last for at least a year. Unfortunately, the new requirements won’t apply for anyone aged 19 or over – and they made up 71 per cent of all new starters in 2010/11.
With youth unemployment at a record high, the government needs to focus on creating more genuine apprenticeship places rather than just massaging the statistics. Public procurement would be a simple, logical place to start – making it clear that businesses who have contracts with government of £1m or more each year must train apprentices.
It’s not too late for the government to change course. Ministers have agreed that “apprenticeships matter”, and that is very welcome. Now is the time for them to take the next step, by making the small change to public contract rules that would make such a big difference for young people across the UK.
Catherine McKinnell is a speaker at our ‘Apprenticeships: How can provision be improved?’ roundtable at Labour party conference.