Grant Woodward: Fire these empty suits and sell the value of hard graft

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APPRENTICESHIPS had come to have the whiff of another age about them – the sad, inexorable decline of British manufacturing rendering the idea as anachronistic as a 1980s car plant the day before the robots were wheeled in to man the production line.

Yet here we are, at the back end of 2014, being told that they’re once again the in thing. The main party leaders are falling over themselves to prove that each is the biggest champion of apprenticeships between now and next May, with David Cameron promising to make them the “new norm” for school leavers who don’t go to university. In a bid to kill two birds with one stone, Ed Miliband insists a Labour government would force large companies to train a new apprentice for each skilled worker they hire from outside the European Union.

Such a pledge would surely make any company director tuning in to watch the new series of BBC1’s The Apprentice speed dial his or her HR department and tell them to put an immediate freeze on all non-EU recruitment.

After all, this reliable ratings-winner has always been predicated on the notion that “the brightest and the best” have come to Alan Sugar’s den vying to head to the top of the business world. If that’s true of the 20 narcissists and incompetents slugging it out this time round then the future of British business is about as rosy as the Sinclair C5’s sales figures.

Now in its 10th series, The Apprentice has achieved the seemingly impossible in that the standard of candidate squeezed into Lord Sugar’s boardroom actually manages to fall even further from one year to the next. Armed with a pricey suit and an ultimately meaningless job title conjured out of thin air (Global Brand Consultant, Business Psychologist, Third Sector Capacity Builder specialising in end-to-end solutions), it soon becomes apparent that beyond brazen ambition there is nothing of substance to be found anywhere within this utterly repellent group of talentless backstabbers.

The most maddening thing about the would-be apprentices is the complete absence of self-awareness as they spout endless business-speak babble in a bid to make themselves look more intelligent than they are, lining up to utter laughable statements such as “Everything I touch turns to sold”, “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footsteps on the moon” and, as one candidate in this series has already informed us with an impressively straight face, “I see myself as a mix between Gandhi and the Wolf of Wall Street”.

Such pronouncements could almost be excused if they then spent the next 10 weeks proving themselves to possess some genuine talent. Instead they are responsible for the sort of basic blunders you would barely expect of the work experience boy. Asked to invent an occasion they could use to flog greetings cards, one team settled on Happy Environment Day. It was left to Lord Sugar to point out that it was a contradiction in terms because of the terrific waste of paper. Another team recorded a huge loss on a task to market their own perfume when they got mixed up between half a kilo and half a gram of Sandalwood. Asked to make pizzas, one bright spark promptly budgeted to put a whole chicken on every pizza.

Perhaps the lowest point was when another team came up with an idea for a periodical for pensioners tiled Hip Replacement – the mooted alternative title being Coffin Dodgers.

Mindful of the fact that none of the past winners have managed to stay with Sugar’s company for any length of time, with one even taking him to an employment tribunal, the format has been changed with Sugar now offering the winner of the show a £250,000 investment in their business, rather than a job.

Sold as a business management show, it has long been obvious that The Apprentice is actually reality TV played and edited for maximum humour and outrage. But if apprenticeships and entrepreneurialism are really such important planks of the economic recovery, then doesn’t this sell them short?

Last year’s winner, Leah Totton, used her prize money to set up a cosmetic skin clinic in the East End of London. The one before her, Ricky Martin, opened a recruitment agency specialising in the science industry. It’s hardly Apple Computers, but then Sugar, a former Labour enterprise tsar, has insisted that the nation’s youth spend too much time waiting to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, and not enough making it happen with small sums and hard work every day.

So perhaps The Apprentice is finally doing its bit for the recovery, after all, finding the diamonds in the rough who can make a go of it and rejuvenate the economy in their own, small way.

It’s just that the method of finding them – “the process” as Lord Sugar would call it – is becoming more excruciating by the series.