The real apprentice
Labour must rescue apprenticeships from the coalition’s muddle and dismantle England’s statist approach to skills, argues Tom Bewick
Leonardo Da Vinci was a renowned artist, scientist and polymath. What is perhaps less well known is that he came to his life’s vocation via a guild apprenticeship: several years of careful instruction alongside some of the masters of Renaissance Europe. The great rivalry that sprang up between Da Vinci and Michaelangelo is the stuff of legends and was made possible thanks to the premium placed on intellectual enquiry, artistic perfection and craftsmanship.
Such a vision of apprenticeships is far removed from the shelf-stacking, short-burst variety, which has attracted such sharp criticism since the coalition government reported a 63 per cent increase in the numbers undertaking apprenticeships to 450,000 in 2010-11. The government is abjectly failing on the bigger picture in terms of supporting 14-24-year-olds.
The simple truth is that progressives should be concerned about the current muddle that is David Cameron’s approach to preparing young people for the world of work.
The prime minister told the Huffington Post that he wants apprenticeships to become the new ‘gold standard’, awarded the same ‘prowess’ as academic learning. But such huffing and puffing aside, the reality is that his ministers are doing everything possible to undermine vocational learning by, for example, devaluing the vocational diplomas that were beginning to offer more employment pathways for 14-19-year-olds. This is a retrograde step that amounts to the Department for Education freezing out of the national curriculum all but the most academic disciplines. Even entrepreneurship education will not be available in most schools from next year.
Similarly, much of what comes out of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills these days is, on closer examination, a mirage. In absolute terms the numbers starting an apprenticeship have increased rapidly. But that is like Soviet-era commissars reporting tractor production has increased fivefold thanks to more rubles from comrade Stalin. Meanwhile, the bread queues lengthen and the people starve.
The National Apprenticeship Service is little more than a top-down, Stalinist institution that artificially boosts numbers by throwing money at employers for training that they would have undertaken anyway. The supermarket chain Morrison’s is a good case in point. Its HR director has admitted that the apprenticeship monies it was being given by NAS for 35,000 existing employees was for the kind of low-level, induction training the company usually undertakes within its own resources. Now, there is nothing wrong with companies like Morrison’s creating additional jobs, but they should not be used by government as a proxy for ministers to claim credit for a policy that has nothing to do with a genuine renaissance in English apprenticeships.
The idea that Britain has been undergoing some sort of ‘apprenticeship revolution’ since the coalition was formed is a total distortion. Labour should be claiming the real credit for bringing back the mass availability of record apprenticeship places while boosting their prestige in the eyes of employers, parents and young people. For coalition ministers to be trumpeting simply an increase in the quantity of apprentices is to completely miss the point of the jobs crisis now unfolding. Parallels with the 1980s and lengthening dole queues are not the only comparison. During that period, the Conservative government artificially increased the number of training schemes to massage the unemployment statistics. It led to what policymakers called the ‘revolving door’ syndrome of training without jobs.
While it is incredibly important for profitable companies like Ferrari, Tesco and BAE Systems to continue to offer apprenticeships, should they really be receiving such generous public subsidy at the expense of smaller firms? Economists call this ‘deadweight’ – the effect of public money being given to companies when they would have financed the training anyway. It is why throwing an upfront subsidy of £1,500 to each employer taking on an apprentice is misguided. Administering this subsidy alone will cost thousands of pounds in extra bureaucracy. A far more efficient and progressive approach would be to abolish employer national insurance contributions for all firms below 250 employees that take on 16-24-year-olds through approved, quality apprenticeships. In addition, the £1,500 subsidy – if there is to be one – should be split between employer and apprentice at the end of the training as an incentive and reward for successful completion. This is a much smarter, more cost-effective approach than is currently planned.
We know that much of the recent increase in apprenticeships has gone to over-25-year-olds. In some cases it is possible for 16-week apprenticeships to be undertaken, attracting a government subsidy of around £5,000 per person, which is paid directly to the training provider. It is no wonder then that private training providers like Elmfield reported record profits of £12m last year. In countries with world-class apprenticeship systems like those of Germany and Switzerland, industry and public funds are channelled through non-profit or mutual companies, set up in partnership with sector bodies and trade unions. The industry-led sector skills councils set up by Labour have been underutilised by this government. They should be reinvigorated along the lines of the guilds and be devolved the current funding and powers that are currently afforded to the National Apprenticeship Service, except on a UK-wide basis. It would show a more progressive, non-statist approach to skills training devolved to those who really know what industry needs. It is time to take civil servants out of the training equation and admit Labour got that approach wrong in the past.
Like the unemployment figures comparing the narrow claimant count with the labour force survey’s broader definition, ministers should publish the apprenticeship figures in tables that directly compare with our international competitors’ performance. It would soon reveal that, in terms of the number of employers who offer good quality apprenticeships, Britain comes nearly bottom of the international league. In Australia, over a third of companies train people as apprentices with a much higher proportion at technician level: precisely the level that provides good wages and economic growth. According to IPPR’s report Rethinking Apprenticeships, the German system helps 800,000 achieve an apprenticeship, from which 75 per cent go on to gain an advanced level apprenticeship – a seamless route to higher-level skills or university. The plan to expand higher-level apprenticeships is a step in the right direction but extremely timid in comparison to what is needed.
A much smarter apprenticeship system would focus public investment on companies with fewer than 250 employees in sectors where there is likely to be stronger future jobs growth. For example, three years ago apprenticeships did not exist in Britain’s highly successful creative industries, yet it is precisely these apprenticeships that are flourishing in the current harsh economic climate. Nearly a thousand waged employer-led places have been created from scratch thanks to the leadership of the sector skills council, Creative & Cultural Skills. According to an independent evaluation of the creative apprenticeships scheme, auditors Baker Tilly concluded that there was hardly any deadweight. The reason for this is because the apprenticeship subsidy is being better targeted at very small companies that are creating additional apprenticeship jobs in places like theatres and museums.
One of the most progressive things of all – and something this government has so far refused to do – would be to prevent companies in receipt of public contracts from receiving any monies unless they commit to taking on young apprentices. That policy alone would make a serious dent in youth unemployment while providing valuable skills our economy needs. The coalition needs to be a lot more coherent on skills training as well as honest about what really sits behind these increased apprenticeship figures, and Labour must press hard for a better settlement on skills.
Tom Bewick is chair of the International Network of Sector Skills Organisations