Andrew Adonis recently renewed his call for a Whitehall apprenticeship scheme. Prospect, the union representing 34,000 professionals and specialists across the civil service, strongly agrees that the government needs to do more to demonstrate its role as a good employer in this area.
The fact of the matter is that last time we asked, Civil Service Learning (the body that replaced the Sector Skills Council for central government) did not hold robust central data on the number or type of civil service apprenticeships, and we couldn’t obtain it through parliamentary questions either. In itself, this speaks volumes about the real lack of commitment to converting political promises into practice.
Yet, belatedly, civil service unions have recently learned of proposals to create an administrative apprenticeship scheme targeted at school leavers. So should Adonis regard this as mission accomplished?
The short answer is: not yet.
Often in the civil service there is a gap between aspiration and delivery and, from a union perspective, we are concerned that all apprenticeship opportunities should be of high quality, independently accredited and with appropriate support in the workplace. Under Labour we secured an apprenticeship framework agreement that would have provided these safeguards and more. That agreement has been unilaterally torn up.
Just as important, civil service apprenticeships should address the skills gaps that already exist as well as the skills needed to support economic growth. All of our intelligence is that the priority need is for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills. We are aware of shortages across government of specialist, cost and project engineers and well as in a range of scientific specialisms. Unless the civil service invests in the next generation of scientists and engineers, it will become increasingly denuded of essential capability.
There are good engineering apprenticeships in the private sector and good initiatives to develop higher level science apprenticeships. Government should learn from this experience – drawing on the expertise of Sector Skills Councils like Cogent and SEMTA. But it is vital too to develop a new generation of scientists and engineers that understand the particular demands of working for government and who, in time, could help to strengthen advice and policymaking functions. There are many examples of successful businesses run by people who started out as engineering apprentices, but at the top of the civil service engineering and science professionals are few and far between.
The civil service should also take the opportunity to lead by example, and could make a good start by opening up STEM apprenticeships to young women – thereby directly challenging the entrenched gender segregation that persists in engineering apprenticeships across the economy.
I hope that the Richard review of apprenticeships will include bold recommendations for opening up access to high quality schemes and that it will recognise the benefits of unions working with employers to support young workers. It should not let government off the hook.
One note to Adonis – a fraction of civil servants actually work in Whitehall and many scientists and engineers are employed in agencies and non-departmental public bodies. Let’s be careful to avoid any impression that these opportunities should be restricted to a group who can work in London.
Sue Ferns is head of research and specialist services at Prospect. She tweets @FernsSue
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