Greg Wright: The wrong blueprint for a new age of apprentices

JUST utter the word 'apprentice' and your thoughts surely turn to a noble Lord and his withering assessment of a TV show contestant who believes they can fill his shoes.

Does TV's The Apprentice doing a disservice to genuine apprenticeships?

Go on admit it. In the public consciousness, the word “apprentice” is linked with the phrase: “You’re fired.”

But it wasn’t always like this. Apprenticeships were once prized by generations of strivers, who understood that they offered a passport to a skilled job and a better life for them and their family.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

An apprentice wasn’t somebody who tried to browbeat their opponents in an attempt to win Lord Sugar’s approval. They were the ultimate team players who kept the wheels of industry turning.

The decline of apprenticeships in the 1980s and early 1990s was one of the saddest signs of Britain’s industrial decay. While our rivals – notably in Germany – believed that the long-term nurturing of the workforce could yield benefits, Britain fell behind. Today, the EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, is exasperated by the number of skilled engineering vacancies that remain stubbornly hard to fill.

Every time I meet an experienced business leader in the manufacturing sector, they express fears about how they will replace staff nearing retirement.

They are also worried about the lack of girls taking STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) subjects.

The absence of women in engineering is posing a long-term threat to our economy. Brexit is certainly concentrating minds about our lack of home-grown talent.

For decades, careers advisers have not been steering sufficient numbers of young people towards engineering.

Sadly, many outside the sector believe engineering jobs vanished with the traditional ‘smoke stack’ industries. A trip, for example, to the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing would quickly change their minds.

The AMRC helps manufacturers of all sizes raise their game by introducing the most advanced techniques. The AMRC is helping Rolls-Royce to transform the production of components for passenger jets. This is light years from the world of rags and spanners.

So you might think that there would be universal approval for a new Government initiative which aims to create millions of apprentices. But the Apprenticeship Levy, which has come into force this month, has proved controversial.

Following the 2015 General Election, the Government set a target of achieving three million new apprenticeship “starts” by 2020. It announced plans for the new levy on large employers.

The Enterprise Act 2016 introduced greater legal protection for the term ‘apprenticeship’ and established the Institute for Apprenticeships; which administers apprenticeship standards.

A levy-paying employer can receive funds to spend on apprenticeships. The Government believes this bold move will ensure we have a workforce that will prosper in the post-Brexit world.

But this smacks of asking industry, and training providers, to move from famine to feast with alarming speed. Is it wise to flood the economy with millions of apprentices, without any real assessment of which sectors have the greatest need?

The focus should be on the quality of training – and the potential for career progression – rather than sheer weight of numbers.

According to the CBI, companies will pay a colossal £3bn a year into the levy. Will they really be getting value for money? I doubt it. And I’m not the only voice of dissent.

The House of Commons Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy has highlighted a “worrying lack of focus on the sectors of the economy where training or upskilling are, and will be, most needed” in connection with the apprenticeship levy.

The committee concluded: “The three million target and the apprenticeship levy are likely to improve skills levels in the economy, but are not sufficient in themselves. They are both blunt instruments that risk being unduly focused on simply raising participation.”

A report from the EEF found that more than a third of manufacturers did not see any benefits from the apprenticeship levy. The CBI is worried about the lack of “fully-developed success measures and long-term goals” linked to the levy, as well as ineffective careers guidance in schools.

This is the biggest stumbling block, which the MPs highlighted. The absence of deep-rooted ties between many employers and schools makes it hard to see how the scheme will work as planned.

A smarter approach would involve carrying out a study to establish the sectors where apprentices are needed the most. The Government could then target support in those areas.

It should also order careers advisers to take pupils around our world-leading manufacturing plants. It shouldn’t be long before this problem starts to correct itself. I fear the Government has gone to work with a blunderbuss, when a scalpel was required.

Greg Wright is the deputy business editor of the The Yorkshire Post.