The vocational route should be a highway, not a cul-de-sac

by John Hayes

This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics

What can be done to raise the status of apprenticeships in the UK?

Those who take the practical path deserve to enjoy symbols of status that are as seductive and prestigious as those associated with the academic route. That’s why the government is publishing the achievements of high-level apprentices, has introduced apprenticeship award ceremonies, and is fostering alumni networks. We have also launched a new scheme that will give apprentices access to the benefits of a National Union of Students (NUS) card. For these emblems of success to be meaningful, we must ensure that achievement is properly recognised in the workplace.

Can we improve the quality of the apprenticeships we already offer?

For apprenticeships to fulfil their potential, quality must be paramount. All apprenticeships should therefore entail a rigorous period of learning and the practice of new skills. We’re toughening up apprenticeships by insisting that, from August this year, apprenticeships for 16-19 year olds will involve at least a year of learning. I’ve now extended this to adult apprenticeships (aged 19 and over) too. We are also boosting the number of Higher Level Apprenticeships from just a handful when we came to government to more than 20,000 by the end of this Parliament.

What’s the thinking behind the idea of giving young people the option to study for apprenticeships at university?

For too long we’ve left unchallenged the bourgeois myth that worth can only be assured through academic prowess. It’s now time to pull down the artificial barrier between the lecture hall and the workplace. One of the ideas I’m considering is the introduction of apprenticeships alongside degreesat university, enabling students to divide their time between work and study.

How should the skills agenda work with secondary and higher education?

We need to tackle the snobbery about vocational education. It’s fallacious to assume that academic study is necessarily a better route to success than learning on the job – after all, many of Britain’s entrepreneurs began their careers as apprentices.

The vocational route should be a highway, not a cul-de-sac. In the past, vocational learners have been let down by weak courses that wasted their time and taxpayers’ money. Doing an apprenticeship should be one of the best gateways to university-level study. By 2015, I want thousands of young people each year to be taking degree-equivalent Higher Apprenticeships in sectors like aerospace, renewable energy, advanced manufacturing and the creative industries.

Economic flexibility and social progress depend on a mix of excellent academic courses and strong vocational education, each securing our national economic interest and serving the common good.

What will the new National Careers Service provide that wasn’t being offered before?

The new National Careers Service makes available to everyone a combination of accurate
information and professional advice about learning, careers and skills. The service, which I launched in April, can handle one million helpline calls from adults, 370,000 calls from young people, and 20 million hits on its website each year. It will also give 700,000 adults, aged 19 and over, face-to-face advice. These services will be delivered from more than 3,200 locations in further education colleges, job centres, community centres, housing associations and libraries, and advisers will work to new professional standards being developed by the careers sector. I want this first-ever, all-age career service for England to lead the way in providing professional advice that transforms lives, feeds social mobility and nourishes social justice.

The unemployment figures for young people are very high. What can be done to reverse this trend?

Youth unemployment is one of the biggest challenges we face, and we’re determined to make a difference to a problem that’s been building up for much of the past decade. Through the Youth Contract, we’re offering practical support to both employers and job seekers, which we hope will give young people a head’s start in the labour market. The message is clear – if you’re under 25 and don’t have a job, we’re helping you to work or learn, or both.

Earlier this month we announced that an extra 250,000 work experience places will be provided over the next three years. We are helping business to take on under-25s, through 160,000 wage incentives worth up to £2,275. From this summer, an extra 20,000 incentive payments will be made available to encourage smaller businesses to recruit their first young apprentices.

What is the role of apprenticeships and the skills agenda in bringing growth to our economy?

Apprenticeships boost productivity and competitiveness, and are important tools in building economic growth. We must ensure that our workforce is equipped with the skills it needs to enable companies to prosper and compete globally.

Putting apprenticeships back at the heart of our education and skills system is one of the
government’s proudest achievements, with record investment paying dividends for businesses, trainees and the wider economy. Our unprecedented focus on quality and extra funding has produced the biggest and best apprenticeship programme in modern history.

The National Audit Office recently concluded that adult apprenticeships deliver £18 of economic benefit for each pound the government invests. Few government programmes can boast such value for money. In addition, the huge increase in the number of Higher Apprenticeships will give firms the high-tech skills they need to grow. Apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing alone have grown 32.4 per cent in the past two years.

Do we need greater incentives for businesses to create apprenticeships?

Employers of all kinds report that taking on apprentices improves the productivity of their
businesses and leads to a more motivated and satisfied workforce. In the vast majority of cases, employers recoup their investment in an apprentice within two to three years. Around 91 per cent of apprentices say they’re satisfied with their training, and 86 per cent of apprentice employers conclude that vocational qualifications improved their business performance.

We recognise that taking on an apprentice is a big undertaking for smaller companies. Because I want to make it as simple and rewarding as possible for employers to do so, we’ve introduced incentive payments of £1,500 for up to 40,000 small firms that take on their first new young apprentice. We are also piloting a radical new programme to give employers greater ownership of vocational training. Employers can compete for a share of a £250m fund to explore innovative employer-owned approaches that test new ways to invest in skills.

How has the ‘red-tape challenge’ informed skills policy?

Some employers say they’re inhibited by unnecessary red tape. Because I want to remove these bureaucratic burdens and provide more support to help businesses, we’ve already removed all health and safety requirements that go beyond what legislation requires, we’ve made a significant reduction in data collection and audit requirements, we’ve launched an online toolkit to make navigating the system easier, and we’ve announced an employer-led review to advise on measures which will give SME employers more control in the system. The review is being led by social entrepreneur and jeweller Jason Holt, and he’ll present his report to me in late June.

Does the UK’s workforce need reskilling for us to remain competitive?

Advanced economies need advanced skills. Britain’s chance to grow and prosper is as a high-tech, highly-skilled nation, but past neglect of skills training and further education have let our country down. In Germany, two-thirds of young people take some form of apprenticeship by the time they’re 25, and that’s how I want it to be in Britain. That’s why, even in difficult economic circumstances, we boosted spending on apprenticeships to over £1.4bn. We helped 457,000 people start an apprenticeship last year, and now we’re aiming for half a million. That’s a staggering 250,000 more over this Parliament than the last government planned.