Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

An equal chance: Making apprenticeships worth celebrating

According to the government’s web page publicising this year’s Apprenticeship Week (14 -18 March), the week is ‘to celebrate apprenticeships and the positive impact they have on individuals, businesses and the wider economy’. The theme this year is how ‘an apprenticeship can take you anywhere’ and there is a particular focus on how young people, entrepreneurs and businesses can ‘rise to the top’ through traineeships and apprenticeships.

The problem is that, although it is strictly speaking true that this is possible, too many apprenticeships currently do not provide the skills, qualifications or opportunities to lead to a job at the end of the training let alone a career that will allow you to rise through the ranks.

In London Boris Johnson set himself a target of 250,000 apprenticeship starts in this mayoral term – a target he has failed to reach by around 100,000 according to the Skills Funding Agency. Around two thirds of the apprenticeships created in London are at the lowest level (helpfully termed ‘intermediate’) that is equivalent to a GCSE with around 40 per cent at the ‘advanced’ level equivalent to A levels and just two per cent at the higher level equivalent to degrees.

It is these advanced and higher qualifications that are the apprenticeships that generally lead to career type roles for the highflyers the government is suggesting. Here in London none of the higher apprenticeships in construction and engineering have gone to women in the past year. The lack of women in these roles represents a staggering failure to open up traditional apprenticeships offering high level skills in anything from construction to engineering.

It is simply not plausible that more girls would not go in to traditionally male roles, or take up traditionally male apprenticeships or training if they had the encouragement, opportunity and role models to do so. Ann Dowling, president of a Royal Academy of Engineering, one of very few high profile women role models in this area wrote how she was lucky as she had a father who was an engineer. Given the right circumstances, I have no doubt that more young women would follow routes in to more traditionally male jobs and careers. This is not just about rights or broad gender equality this is about income and the access to skills on which to build a career.

Better and consistent provision of careers advice across the board would be a start but professional bodies and the companies themselves need to play a role and the mayor could have done much more to bring the right people to the table to start the culture change required.

From a less idealistic perspective, addressing the serious lack of young women going in to traditionally male jobs is also about our country and this city having the skills to thrive and flourish because there remains a shortage now, and on future projections, of engineering, science and technology professionals. The Federation of Master Builders, has published research suggesting that two-thirds of small and medium sized construction firms have had to turn down work because they cannot access enough skilled tradespeople.

Apprenticeships can be a good route to address this and provide skills and opportunities for young people in London. However, it is vital for the future of apprenticeships for parents to see them as a good career option for their children. The Chartered Management Institute survey published this week states that 81 per cent of parents believe an apprenticeship would have a better chance of getting a job than a stand-alone university degree. The CMI slightly overstates the case, however, when it describes their survey as ‘a dramatic national shift in attitudes towards apprenticeships’ as their report also concedes that only 13 per cent of parents had actually heard of degree apprenticeships. Furthermore, less than half the parents surveyed felt confident they knew about the choices available.

Parents will not support apprenticeships of any kind if they are seen as a lesser route. Attitudes towards apprenticeships will not shift dramatically until they are more widely seen to lead to decent, well paid jobs. Take up of apprenticeships will continue to be low while they are paid a lower apprenticeship rate of pay – currently £3.30 an hour – and while lower skilled roles dominate.

In London, the next Mayor will have to pick up the pieces left by Boris Johnson and one of these will be in tackling the gender divide that has become entrenched in apprenticeships. Labour’s candidate for mayor, Sadiq Khan, is committed both to establishing high quality apprenticeships and to gender equality. The fact that responsibility for apprenticeships will sit in the mayor’s office dedicated to economic fairness will be a good start in ensuring that not only are apprenticeships no longer used to by-pass the minimum wage but that the gender divide is also addressed.

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Fiona Twycross is a member of the London assembly and Labour’s London fire spokesperson. She tweets @fionatwycross

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Photo: Olli Wilkman

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Fiona Twycross AM

is a member of the London assembly

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