08 Feb 2011
February 8, 2011

National Apprentice Week

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It is very appropriate that the final of Michel Roux’s Service should be followed by National Apprentice Week.  Although it is a bit of an overused phrased, we need to remember that the young people of today are the wealth creators of tomorrow.

I am personally very passionate about apprenticeships and non-university education streams.  I’ve always thought that the university route didn’t suit everybody and I’m not alone. Ann Watson, managing director of specialist engineering and manufacturing awarding organisation EAL has this to say:

“The last two years have seen a dramatic shift in the way Government has viewed apprenticeships. For too long now, this country channelled our brightest and best down the degree route, suggesting it was the only option. University become the gold standard for school leavers at the expense of our skills sector. Today, the situation has changed and a degree is no longer the guarantor of a job in the way it was 20 years ago. In the meantime, the skilled sector – for example manufacturing and engineering – is crying out for new blood and can provide life-long, engaging careers for students”.

So, what does the BBC make of  National Apprentice Week?  Well, the article on the BBC website starts with the headline “Vince Cable urges companies to increase apprenticeships” and continues with “The government is hoping UK firms will create 100,000 more apprentices by 2014, as Apprenticeship Week begins.”

Forgive me Mr Cable, but what good is urging and hoping?

OK, the article continues by saying “As part of that commitment the government is to make £1.4bn available for apprenticeships in 2011-12.” What isn’t mentioned is that this isn’t new funding but a £200M increase on the existing funding levels.  Nor is there any detail on the where, the when and the how?

Graham Snowdon, writing in the Guardian has this to say:

Apprenticeships are a hot topic now – from ministers to opposition MPs to the 20 or so senior businesspeople who recently put their names to a joint letter singing their praises, it seems nobody has a bad word for them.

Nobody except the small and medium-sized businesses that are supposed to be implementing such schemes, who complain that they are stymied from doing so by, among other things, obfuscating employment law and a shortage of funding to cover the training costs. For all the good words, a report last year showed that only 8% of employers in the UK offered apprenticeships, compared with around a third in Australia.

So, what positive action is the government taking to resolve these issues?

Well, Skills Minister John Hayes, who launched the Skills Strategy in November has gone and renamed everything:

Level 2 (GCSE level equivalent) apprenticeships will now be known as Intermediate Level Apprenticeships. Level 3 (A level equivalent) will become Advanced Level Apprenticeships and Higher Apprenticeships will remain unchanged. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills is also working with Sector Skills Councils to develop more Higher Apprenticeships (Level 4) frameworks.

I’m not sure that helps much, Mr Hayes.

The last words of the BBC article from Unite general secretary Len McCluskey were particularly poignant.  I could hear the echo of the of the Finniston Report of some thirty years ago that was so influencial on my own education and career choices.

“The government needs to make sure that funding is available to schools and careers services to show that there is nothing wrong with manufacturing.”

The thing is engineering – with all its facets from construction through manufacturing to software – is the most fascinating, fulfilling and enjoyable place to work.  Just stop for a second and look around you.  Take in the buildings around you.  Think about  your iPhone or Blackberry for a moment.  Ask yourself what skill, passion and professionalism got those airplanes into the air.

From the Pyramids to the iPod – it is all engineering.  The most creative and exciting way that man can stretch the limits of endeavour is through ‘making things’.  Some argue that the enduring mark of human civilization is in the art we have created.  I argue that it is in the unstoppable march of the technology around us.  Any young person who dismisses engineering is missing out on what I am convinced would be a fabulously fulfilling career choice.

So, Mr Cable and Mr Hayes, it is time to stop all this renaming, urging and hoping.  Take some real action to light a burning passion in the hearts of tomorrow’s wealth creators.