In the 1990s, when the government's target was to get 50% of young people into university, apprenticeships took a hit in terms of both reputation and numbers. Thankfully, government policy has since changed, and today, apprenticeships are taken very seriously by politicians across the board.
The UK must have a sustainable and appropriately-skilled workforce, and apprenticeships are the best way to ensure this for the future. Encouraging skilled apprenticeships is vital to ensure the continued health of the economy and ensuring we can meet industry needs in years to come.
JTL provides the majority of training within the building services engineering sector - those fields traditionally thought of when 'apprenticeship' is mentioned - such as plumbing, electrical installation, engineering maintenance and heating and ventilation. Given our 20+ years of expertise in delivering gold-standard Advanced Apprenticeships, we are uniquely positioned to champion employers' and apprentices' needs in order to promote and preserve the industry we work in. In turn we are able to report on the current standing in apprenticeships, and where we think improvements can be made.
The bureaucracy behind apprenticeships has always been complicated; the problem being is that you can't have a 'one size fits all' approach. Every trade is different, and every individual employer and apprentice has different needs.
The recent increase in apprenticeships is often heralded and the top-line figures are encouraging: a 63% increase in the number of people doing apprenticeships in 2011 from 2010 equates to more than 450,000 people starting their apprenticeship. £1.5billion investment. However, it's a deceptive overview.
Various short-term apprenticeships and those which do not create jobs have encroached on the traditional fields in which people learn a skilled trade. The vast majority of the increase in apprenticeships is in the short-term course - and these provide little longer-term benefit to either employer or apprentice.
In fact, within our sector, we have seen the number of apprenticeships falling as employers struggle to take on any more young people. Last year, 25,000 people applied for only 2,500 positions as electrical, plumbing and heating apprentices. It's misleading that so many young people are being pushed towards apprenticeships when employers simply can't create enough places to go around.
In January, 500 employers told us how they perceive apprenticeships. The responses were overwhelmingly positive: 97% said they would happily take on an apprentice under the right conditions. However, only 31% said that they were looking to take on an apprentice in 2012.
So what is it that's preventing two thirds of employers from taking on an apprentice?
Firms in our sector only get paid when a contract is complete. So, to win work, they need cash up-front to pay staff and buy materials. While times are tough, most enterprises don't have this cash available, and banks are nervous about lending to small and medium-sized businesses. Supporting an apprentice for 4 years whilst they study for an Advanced Apprenticeship is simply too large a commitment for them to undertake when work isn't guaranteed from one year to the next.
There should be a commitment from both the employer and the apprentice if the partnership is going to provide mutual benefit. Apprenticeships should be long-term. They should be mutualistic, with clear benefits for both parties.
With an apprentice, the employer can take on more work, they can pick up bigger contracts and they end up with a qualified and well-trained employee at the end of their training. In return, the apprentice gets on-site experience and they learn practical skills to complement the theory which will provide dividends at the end of their training. They earn as they learn, whereas their peers at university will find themselves in demoralising levels of debt. The majority stay with the firms they apprenticed with - often in time, they'll go on to own their own business and perpetuate their industry.
Extra funding for quality apprenticeships is vital to help employers take on apprentices and fulfill their obligations. In the short-term, apprenticeships provide jobs for 16-24 year olds at a time when unemployment amongst this age group is deplorably high, creating an economic time-bomb. In the long term, they provide more small and medium enterprises for the economy. Investing in apprentices today will help stimulate the economy in the future.
As it stands, the funding available from the government for work placements is open to abuse from potentially unscrupulous employers. Those organisations offer limited-duration 'apprenticeships' which are essentially re-packaged internships, work placements or volunteering placements, in order to win the training grants that are available. These placements absolutely ought not to be considered under the same banner as four-year advanced level apprenticeships.
Furthermore, large employers who took funding for apprenticeships and trained their existing staff, creating no new jobs whatsoever, completely missed the point of an apprenticeship and damage the scheme's reputation.
Apprenticeship is a word that conjures-up images of young people at the heel of their master, learning something that would be unfathomable to outsiders: how to create something beautiful or useful using a loom or a chisel. Apprenticeships have obviously come a long way since these traditional images that we look at with rose-tinted glasses, but there is still value in reflecting to when apprenticeships were the springboard that launched someone into a skilled career and not just a route for an employer to secure a training grant.