12 Oct 2010
History always provides lessons for the future. As vocational education is dusted off, Ann Watson discusses how both industry and government can look at apprenticeships of the past, in order to move forward successfully
Engineering apprenticeships offer the opportunity to learn from trained professionals, while applying theoretical knowledge on a day-by-day basis. This valuable method of skills development is why apprenticeships have long been seen as the gold standard of 'on-the-job' training. Now, apprenticeships are being hailed as a way of rejuvenating the UK economy. But they're not new.
Golden ages of the apprentice
Many see the glory days of apprenticeships as the 1950s. We don't need to go so far back, though, as many industry professionals regard the 1980s as their most recent halcyon days.
In 1964, the government introduced a training levy that companies had to pay, regardless of whether or not they supported and delivered training. Until 1991, a company's levy was calculated on the number of employees and its total wages bill.
As a result, big businesses generally had their own in-house training academies, which trained more apprentices than they needed. This ensured that they were able to retain the best and the brightest, while the surplus of trained and skilled professionals could join companies unable to afford to take on an apprentice. Many of these skilled professionals even went on to start up their own businesses and have become our present captains of industry.
At the same time, industry expansion was stimulated by the rapid development in computer-led innovation and the introduction of new technologies. This created demand for skilled workers, which meant firms needed to hire apprentices and deliver training to gain competitive advantage.
The 'dark ages'
Once the levy was removed, the incentive for companies to train apprentices was reduced. New Labour's arrival in 1997 compounded the issue with a government-led shift away from craft-based industries. Emerging markets – with their cheaper labour costs – began taking a lead in manufacturing, while, at home, service and white collar industries were promoted to become the main drivers of the UK's economic growth.
There was a further evolution in the popular focus of education. Labour's goal to get 50% of young people into university pushed vocational education out of the limelight and into the role of second-class citizen. Where has that left us? With increasing graduate unemployment, more graduates chasing fewer employment opportunities, rising university education costs and more young people leaving university with record levels of debt.
It seems apprenticeships are back in fashion. The Conservative-Liberal coalition government, recognising the risk of putting all our eggs in one basket, wants to foster a balanced economy. Industry plays a vital role and therefore the balance must include a greater focus on skilled industries and, by default, a greater number of apprentices.
But are we really going through an apprenticeship renaissance? Well, yes – to an extent. Engineering and craft industries have a long way to go before achieving the number of apprentices needed to deliver the high-tech economy to which the government aspires. It has pledged to create 50,000 apprentice places as a first step and also announced National Insurance breaks for small and start-up businesses that take on apprentices.
Is this enough? When you consider that the overall number of individuals starting engineering, manufacturing and technology (EMT) apprenticeships has fallen by 9.1% since 2008 [these figures encompass a wider range of jobs than the SEMTA figures referred to the in the Feedback column, page 41, and therefore slightly different – Ed], my concern is that it isn't. In a global marketplace, where firms compete primarily on cost, incentives are need to ensure that all businesses take training seriously. It is therefore crucial that government rhetoric is underpinned by effective policy to deliver more EMT apprentices.
Industry has always been aware of the value of apprenticeships and the opportunities they offer for young people, as well as for those looking to retrain. Manufacturing and engineering has the potential once again to form the backbone of the UK economy; and, in this, apprentices will play a key role.
The government needs to work closely with awarding organisations to ensure the skills that industry needs are incorporated into qualifications. It must also provide financial incentives to businesses of all sizes to guarantee that funding for apprentice places is available and offer ongoing support through the four-year training period. Training doesn't rest solely on the shoulders of big business, however; smaller organisations must be encouraged play their part.
Young people need to be shown the potential rewards of vocational routes from an early age. Parents, too, can be unaware of the vocational alternatives to higher education or unsure of the value of apprenticeships. Teachers also need to educate themselves about vocational opportunities, in order to give equal weighting to all types of education and be able to give impartial advice. Creating links with local companies and training colleges can provide students with valuable exposure to practical vocations, and here smaller business can be proactive in supporting their local communities.
While the apprenticeship renaissance must undoubtedly start at the top, all levels of industry, education and society must play their part to restore engineering, manufacturing and apprenticeships to their rightful place as a key component of a balanced and healthy UK economy.
Apprentices are vital to the economy
In a speech in June to Cass Business School, Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, commented: "...the economy is seriously unbalanced, both in its sectoral mix and its regions".
He's right. Now that policy makers are looking to countries such as Germany and Korea, which have an ongoing history of investing in infrastructure and long-term finance for technical education, they see all too clearly how important apprentices are to the economy. Incidentally, both these countries are faring better than most in the recession: another stimulus for both government and industry to focus on vocational training.
Figures for the number of individuals starting engineering, manufacturing and technology apprenticeships (EMT).
16 to 18 year olds 19 to 24 year olds 25+ years
2007/2008 23,870 14,661 2,009
2008/2009 19,912 13,158 3,772
(Source: The Data Service)
Ann Watson is managing director at EMTA Awards Ltd (EAL).
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