Greg Wright: It’s time to bang the drum harder for apprenticeships

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LET’s consider a scenario that should make all Yorkshire manufacturers punch the air.

A bright 17-year-old is pondering her future. Should she take up the offer of an apprenticeship at a local manufacturing firm, or accept a place at an Oxford college?

After carefully weighing up the options, she decides that the apprenticeship is right for her.

Far-fetched? Well, not if entrepreneur Doug Richard has his way.

Mr Richard led a team which took a long, hard look at the Government’s policy on apprenticeships. It did not like everything that it saw. The resulting report calls for a revolutionary change in the way apprenticeships are defined. The standards of apprenticeships should be raised, the report said, to stop them being dismissed as less useful, or intellectually taxing, than a three-year degree course.

At the report’s heart was an attack on the “unthinking collective belief” that a university degree is always a sign of superior ability.

Mr Richard dreamed of a day when teenagers could turn down a place at Oxbridge in favour of an apprenticeship without being ridiculed, or placed under pressure by their parents and teachers to change their mind.

Perhaps the previous Government’s desire to send 50 per cent of school leavers to university, although driven by noble motives, put young people off applying for apprenticeships?

Last week, the Yorkshire Post business desk received worrying evidence that great opportunities are going begging.

We were contacted by Kate Langwick, from Leeds-based Bravi UK, which specialises in providing platforms for people who work at height.

I’ll let Ms Langwick take up the story: “We are a growing business who are members of the Leeds Chamber. We have been kept informed of apprenticeship schemes, and how we can use them to benefit us and an apprentice.

“We have advertised on three separate occasions this year for an apprentice to join our company, and we have not found a single candidate to meet our minimal criteria.

“Indeed, in the last advert that we ran on the National Apprenticeship scheme website we attracted three applicants. Three!

“Is Leeds very lucky, in that all our youths are gainfully employed already, bucking the national trend? Has the Government got it wrong?

“Where are these enthusiastic school leavers desperate for a company to give them a chance?

“We have a really good opportunity here for the right person, but we just can’t find them no matter how many times we look. I’m sure we cannot be alone in this.”

These are hard times for anyone who is young and unemployed, so it is saddening to hear of an opportunity being missed.

Research by the TUC indicates that nearly 52,000 people aged between 16 and 24 were out of work for six months or longer in Yorkshire and Humber from April to June this year – an increase of 29 per cent from the same period two years ago.

The region has also seen the second largest drop in funding for people out of work, with more than £13m cut from budgets, according to the TUC.

The TUC’s regional secretary, Bill Adams, has described long-term youth unemployment as a ticking timebomb for the region’s finances.

It’s hard to fault the commitment of Leeds City Council to promoting apprenticeships. Last week, the Apprenticeship Training Agency (ATA) was launched in Leeds, with the goal of matching young apprentices with companies who want to expand their workforce. A dedicated apprenticeship website will be launched by Leeds and Partners, the organisation that promotes Leeds as a place to live and work, in the New Year.

But why can’t an ambitious, friendly, fast-growing company like Bravi Uk, find a single suitable candidate from the local labour market?

Something is going wrong somewhere. The company is involved in a host of fascinating schemes, including projects linked to major retailers, museums, universities and hospitals. Potential candidates should be battering the doors down. Perhaps our education system simply isn’t geared up to meet the needs of industry?

• Amid the slew of negative data, a cheery piece of research has landed on our desk. According to Lloyds TSB Private Banking, Yorkshire-based private investors have become more optimistic about UK stocks.

Apparently, a fifth of our region’s investors who were quizzed by Lloyds TSB, believed UK stocks had a “positive outlook” over the next six months, which is more than most realists can say about the economy. But the message is clear – some UK equities have underperformed, so it could be a good time to go bargain-hunting.