Jayne Dowle: Budget 2015 and some realities behind the apprentice

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AT first sight, apprenticeships look like the big success story of this Government. Since the coalition came to power, more than 100,000 places a year have been created to give young people the chance to train in a practical career.

It is so easy to be seduced by the romantic idea of an “apprentice”. It conjures up the image of an earnest young man (or woman) beavering away to serve their time and gain their “papers” before embarking upon a job for life. Wake up and smell the coffee, though – nine times out of 10, it’s the apprentice’s job to make it.

That said, the Government’s apprenticeship policy has been bowled along by a positive public relations image. It can only be a good thing, after all, to provide those school-leavers not cut out for the rigours of further academic study the chance to make something of themselves. In principle, I am all for it. However, as a parent and a supporter of young people, I have some serious caveats about the way apprenticeships are panning out. Not least of these are pay and conditions.

Let’s take pay first. The pre-Budget headlines were all about the rise in the minimum wage. However, critics have been quick to jump on the fact that the increase for apprentices is still not enough; from October, 16 to 17-year-old apprentices will be on the paltry sum of £3.30 per hour, up 57p from the previous rate. David Cameron insists this “double digit” rise is far higher than the figure suggested by the Low Pay Commission itself.

However, this nit-picking over pennies threatens to further politicise a situation which should put the interests of young people first. It shouldn’t be a point-scoring exercise. A fair apprenticeship system should be established as consistent workplace practice.

Whichever way you look at it, £3.30 an hour is not a lot of money in exchange for labour. Indeed, it’s only a few pence more than I earned as a part-time shop assistant when studying for my A-levels – and that was 30 years ago. Let’s leave aside the matter of what 16 and 17-year-olds spend their money on for a moment and ask ourselves this – is it morally right to pay a youngster what amounts to a little over £100 for a full week’s work? As Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, says, the rate increases go “nowhere near enough to end in-work poverty” and should have been “much bolder”.

As the General Election manifesto battle hots up, apprentices find themselves an unlikely, but key point of leverage. Labour leader Ed Miliband makes the lofty promise to guarantee every school leaver “who gets the grades” an apprenticeship by 2020, raising the number of apprenticeships by an estimated 80,000. A new Civil Service apprenticeship scheme would be launched, and all companies bidding for large Government contracts would be required to create apprenticeships as part of their tender. It’s even said that building the HS2 rail infrastructure could create 33,000 apprenticeships itself.

Hold on a minute, though. Surely we should concentrate on getting the existing scheme right before we go about expanding its remit. I have two questions: who is going to pay for all of this and how much are these apprentices going to be paid? And, would a Labour government be prepared to put in place enough structural support for even more employers to take on apprentices? Not all find themselves with a natural bent for encouraging and mentoring youngsters.

I am sure that in the ideal world imagined by politicians it is all a rosy picture of avuncular boss cheerfully showing new recruit the ropes with a laugh and a joke. However, from what I’ve seen and heard these past few months, what sounds like a lifeline can end up turning into a one-way ticket to frustration. I’ve heard of bosses doing anything they can to wriggle out of paying even the paltry minimum wage. I’ve heard of bosses refusing to allow youngsters a day out of the week to attend college.

I am sure that for every dodgy boss there is a good, decent person who wants to give a young person a chance. However, we must be careful not to presume that apprenticeships can continue to expand exponentially without a sensible system of checks and balances put in place to ensure that everyone is involved for the right reasons. Decent pay for a decent week’s work must come first. However, let’s not let the row over money distract us from the fact that apprenticeships should, above all, offer a chance for high-quality training in a supportive workplace rather than cheap labour ready to be exploited.