Are Apprenticeships fit for purpose?

I typed the word “apprenticeship” into a web browser and it generated 20.7 million references in 0.10 seconds. I learned – This is a “work based pathway to earn and learn”; there has been a 60% increase in apprenticeships in the UK in the last year; since 2007 the number of first year construction trainees has fallen by 50%, more in trades like bricklaying, where the figure is 67% (this is 1% of the UK workforce, compared to 5% across the EU); 50,000 of the apprenticeships of the last year have been in Retail – though over the same period apprenticeships for the over 60s in the UK rose by 878%.

Then there were many articles featuring last week’s National Apprenticeship Week. In a keynote address UK skills minister John Hayes announced that the coalition government “has created the biggest and best apprenticeships programme in our country’s history”. Hayes was speaking at a function welcoming the news that Starbucks has started an apprenticeship programme, which will offer 45 places each month beginning in London this spring. With all due respects to the young people working with Starbucks and the company itself – this is unlikely to send a shudder down the backs of the UK’s global competitors in the industrial big league.

Several articles refer to the “gold standard vocational learning that could play an important part in economic growth.” In Germany, the apprenticeship system is exactly that. Meanwhile, in the UK, with 22.3 per cent of 16-24 year-olds currently out of work there is a rising tide of discontent with the apprenticeship position. The word itself has been devalued. “Flexibility” is a new spin, which seems to translate as a 12 week apprenticeship paying a subsidised £2.60 and, “tailoring” is another – which means skills for the immediate task in hand and not necessarily of any lasting value. This means jobs over careers – though the courses are rarely leading to jobs in any case. This is not the recipe to give young people the confidence to grow.

Despite record levels of youth unemployment, the UK cannot fill thousands of vacancies in fast-growing digital economy firms and within industries including engineering and manufacturing. If this is the position now – what will happen when we need to fill over 63,000 jobs in the emerging Renewables sector? Politicians seem to be obsessed with reducing the unemployment figures but pay scant attention to the real need – to produce a world class, highly skilled workforce fit for purpose in the industries that can deliver sustainable growth.

Historically, apprenticeships were a bond between employers and trainees – young entrants to the workforce. Medieval guilds were formed to protect standards and engender pride in craftsmanship. Over time, new trades emerged and still the model survived. Up to the 1980s various industries were responsible for their own ITB (Industry Training Board) run by a collective of employers and, delivery was left to the GTAs (Training Partners).

Then, a succession of Governments changed the system down to today when an alphabet soup of qualifications. This Government trashed the Train to Gain scheme for older employees, cut the funds and rebadged it as “apprenticeships”. Mind you that equates to a 257% increase in apprenticeships – look closely and these are no more than short courses for people already in work with retailers.

Whichever way you look at it – the UK is the only mature economy to have outsourced this historical bond between employer and trainee to training companies that have no link to the trade itself; many of whom flooded into the space attracted by the cash available to train people for certificates – with no job at the end of the line. It is only recently that the notion of job ready has fed into the system.

Are we comfortable with the fact that this led to the bubble in the training industry that created the monster that was Carter and Carter (founded by accountants not people with a skills background) collapse with debts of over £150 million. When they went into liquidation, they had offices in over 100 locations across the UK and abroad, employed 2,500 staff and trained 27,000 students. Then, we have A4E, led by Emma Harrison for so long the poster girl of UK training and now adviser to the Government on problem families. Last year Emma Harrison paid herself £8 million – even though MPs and training specialists say that the company’s record on job schemes is “abysmal”. The company outsources half of its delivery work to charities – charging millions in management fees. The firm even received a £63 million in “termination fees” when the DWP ended a previously failing scheme to replace it with an alternative. Mind you, it is not A4E’s fault if they are paid for failure.

The point remains, why destroy the bond between employer and trainee nurtured within the traditions of a specific industry. After all, these specialists in their own field are best placed to benchmark against their global competitors. If they are not – then they will go out of business. Skills training, like health and safety or the green agenda has to be part of sharpening the competitive edge of UK PLC. You don’t outsource a core strategy so, why fragment this vital resource to a point that it is no longer fit for purpose.

Yesterday, I listened to Eric Collis of HETA (Humberside Engineering Training Association) speak on the Renewables Industry. HETA is a charity that delivers training for the engineering industry and they have launched a purpose built apprenticeship for the renewables industry. The point is this. The renewables curriculum – as with ALL their courses – was designed to meet the needs of the companies that fund the charity. Companies like BP; Centrica; Cargill; Croda; Allam Marine;  Guardian Glass and many more. Surely this is the way forward and the best way of keeping the content responsive to market trends. As Eric Collis emphasises: “we do not seek Government funding; we aim to satisfy our customers – the companies that support us. “

There are other examples of the benefits of a close link between training and the industries they serve. CATCH, the Humber Chemical Focus is funded by the Chemicals industry – the Humber is one of the biggest Chemicals clusters in the EU. The excellent facilities enable trainees to experience industry first hand – from annual shut down routines to replicating emergency scenarios. These are authentic environments – adding another dimension to the learning experience and better preparing them for their “real-world” tasks. Not only do they work within a real plant environment, they have access to industry professionals to share their knowledge and experience. It is an excellent place for people in the processing industries to learn, train and develop. Everything is geared to meeting the needs of a specific industry.

Over at STC in Holland, Rotterdam Port have established a superb training facility which pools the expertise of shipping, transport, port and logistics industries worldwide and delivers training that meets their needs. This is no “tick box exercise”; it is responsive to the real competitive environment. This is how Rotterdam Harbour stays ahead of the game. One feature of STC is the use of simulation and simulators to sharpen a range of operating skills. In addition, like HETA and CATCH, STC have set up a highly effective link to the schools. After all, this is where the workers of the future will emerge from. Simulators play a big role in this area – after all, you would not let a 14 year old loose on a $20 million quayside crane but the benefits of all enabling them to simulate the experience early are clear. Especially as a means to close the gender gaps that do exist in some trades.

Apprenticeships remain the best route to skills for young people not initially looking for a university education. In most EU countries this is the pathway chosen by over half of all young people. It is a real tragedy that, in the UK, successive Governments have failed to tackle this challenge effectively – substituting a blizzard of initiatives masquerading as a strategy.

Strategy is all about imagining a future environment for your business or, sector and then, mapping the route to get there. The UK, and the Humber, is talking up global leadership in the wind energy industry and so – what does leadership look like five or ten years away from now? Look at STC and you see a hub of activity using the very best simulation and simulator techniques to engage and inspire generations; look to CATCH and you see a place to upskill an industry and, look at HETA and you see an approach to apprenticeships driven by the needs of the stakeholders and not focussed on shareholders that may be motivated by short term results rather than sustainable growth. We have had the vision to make the market; now we need to have the vision to deliver a world class workforce that sets the benchmark for the rest. At the Olympics in London, the cyclists will be expected to win a hatfull of medals. This has come from investment and innovative training techniques – something to learn from and emulate offshore.



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4 Responses to Are Apprenticeships fit for purpose?

  1. You have to feel sorry for Emma Harrison of A4e. That peerage was only weeks away when suddenly those nasty people from the Plods turn up.

  2. This is my first time pay a visit at here and i am actually pleassant to read all at one place.

  3. Adam Graydon says:

    Your closing paragraph gives a real vision of what is needed to be the very best in the world. What would this look like in ten years? Any ideas?

  4. Jon Gray says:

    This needs saying. We have to return to training by sector. As you say, each industry knows its own competition and responds to it. The A4E style companies tick boxes – and that bonus would make bankers blush! What message does this all send out? Useful Blog…

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