Almost at the end of my Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with Rolls Royce, I have one more visit to make and am looking forward to meeting and hearing about the University Technology Centre at Imperial College.
When I started out on the scheme, I hoped to gain a greater understanding of UK commerce and industry and how to develop and support policies that make them tick. What I have come out with is an overwhelming sense of urgency to see a skills, training and apprenticeships system that genuinely works for both business and our young people.
It was no accident that one of the first concrete policy proposals announced by Ed Miliband in his 2012 'One Nation' conference speech was a commitment to make apprenticeships an integral part of the public procurement system. On a personal level, this was welcome news as it was an issue on which I had been campaigning since being elected in 2010, with my bill that sought to make the provision of apprenticeships and skills training a requirement for all large public procurement contracts. But more than that, it set out a clear sense of direction, and a One Nation vision that would put valuing the future of all of our young people at its very heart.
There is no doubt that the current skills and employment strategy is failing our young people, and nowhere is this more evident than in my region, the North East. Unemployment is rising, from 10.1% to 10.4% - the highest of any region - in the last quarter, along with other regions too.
Deeply concerning are the youth unemployment figures, with the number of 16-24 year olds not in full-time education and out of work in the North East most recently estimated to stand at 25%, (compared to 19.3% across the country). Never has a One Nation approach been more required if we are to avoid a lost generation for our young people.
This week I visited the Rolls Royce/Michell Bearings factory on Scotswood Road on the Tyne, and saw at firsthand the fantastic Rolls Royce North East Training Centre, providing inspiration and preparation towards an apprenticeship for over 100 people every year. On to their Sunderland plant, where again their apprentices shone. This completed the picture having already visited their Apprenticeships Academy in Derby and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre near Rotherham.
The messages that have come out clearly, time and time again, are these:
- Apprenticeships are clearly a fantastic opportunity for those young people fortunate to find the right quality offer. I say young people - I have met apprentices ranging from age 16 to age 25, and for each one it is a life changing opportunity. From the many apprentices I have spoken to, they have all found focus, direction, a career ladder and greater financial security, with at least one telling me they had even managed to buy their own home. For young people faced with the prospect of a lifetime of university debt, an apprenticeship offers a real, credible, and - for many - superior alternative to university.
- Businesses in the UK are desperately anxious about the skills gap they are facing today, which is only anticipated to widen in the years ahead. I was shocked to hear some of the vacancies available in an area like Newcastle - with the unemployment rate as high as it is - because there are simply not the skilled workers available. Employers are doing their best to 'grow their own', but there needs to be a step change in the supporting structures offered to companies if UK plc is going to disable this ticking time bomb and meet the challenges of an increasingly competitive global market.
- Both the apprentices and businesses I have spoken to feel that when it comes to apprenticeships our schools system is letting them down. The careers advice - cut to the bone by this Government - is poor when it comes to understanding the opportunities out there and linking up with potential employers in the local vicinity. Young people also need to understand the practical application of the subjects they do at school, but without the advice and understanding, too often young people have found the doors of opportunity closed to them before they even realised they had been there. And we still have serious work to do in encouraging parents that apprenticeships have parity of esteem with Higher Education and represent an incredible opportunity for their children.
- The current, complex, funding regime is difficult for businesses to navigate and can even inhibit rather than support the expansion of apprenticeship training.
It was both reassuring and disconcerting to read the report published in the Guardian this week following their most recent apprenticeships roundtable (a follow up to a similar event I attended back in 2011), which drew comparable conclusions to mine: apprenticeships are being undersold as second best to Higher Education; schools and students are failing to grasp their value; and that Rolls Royce has a truly exemplary apprenticeship programme - even accused of 'overtraining' its apprentices(!) - that should be replicated elsewhere.
Yet, changes that this government has made to the funding of apprenticeships puts even Rolls Royce's programme in future jeopardy, with Michael Gove's 'apprenticeship offer' requiring the Government to fund training only for those young people who had already secured an apprenticeship place. Chicken and egg certainly springs to mind. With a 100% success rate for placing its pre-apprentices in either in-house apprenticeships, or within their extensive network of supply chain companies, it would be nothing short of criminal if the work of the Rolls Royce North East Training Centre were to be undermined.
In terms of promoting apprenticeships to young people, the Husbands Review of vocational education and training (published recently following the work of Ed Miliband's independent Skills Taskforce, and being driven forward by Chuka Umunna and Gordon Marsden) highlighted this problem. It recommended that all apprenticeships should be at least Level 3 (equivalent to A level), should last two to three years and be focused on new job entrants as opposed to existing employees, in a bid to establish a gold standard for apprenticeships and combat this misguided idea that apprenticeships are a 'plan B'. Even the government's Richard Review noted that there is 'a clear lack of parity of esteem' for apprenticeships when considered alongside Higher Education.
Yet the government is completely failing to do anything about it. Worse, it has been compounding some of the problems with its re-labelling of previously scrapped programmes as apprenticeship places - reflected in the significant fall in 16-18 apprenticeship starts in the North East and North West last year. Playing the numbers game might allow Ministers to duck the difficult questions, but it will not benefit our young people nor create the jobs, growth and future skills base we so badly need.
With a clear economic case for focussing on this issue (figures from the National Audit Office show that for every £1 spent on developing an apprentice, £18 is returned to the economy); clear demand from businesses for support on this issue; a yawning skills gap that must be tackled; and almost a million of our young people unemployed, the government has to get a grip. A coherent apprenticeships and skills strategy needs a joined-up approach between a number of government departments - education, BIS and DWP. But can you honestly see Gove, IDS and Cable sitting down to even discuss this?
It's clear that Britain can - and must - do better than this, and Ed Miliband has therefore rightly put this issue at the heart of Labour's One Nation vision, which wants to develop and build on the potential of all. Every young person should have the opportunity of a 'Rolls Royce', gold-standard, apprenticeship - but that needs a Rolls Royce government to deliver it.