The Blog

The Debasement of a Once Proud Institution

It saddens me to see the cynical degradation of the proud institution that is the 'apprenticeship' by big business, not for the betterment of young workers, but to boost their bottom lines.

I founded Pimlico Plumbers in 1979, and before that had completed a four-year apprenticeship which set me on the path to where I am today, owning the most successful independent plumbing company in the UK. Because of my early life shaping experiences as an apprentice, I'm passionate about giving our young people the same opportunities, through apprenticeships, that I had. And as a result of the skills they learn they will, like me, have a job for life.

That's why it saddens me to see the cynical degradation of the proud institution that is the 'apprenticeship' by big business, not for the betterment of young workers, but to boost their bottom lines.

What form has this taken? Well to give a couple of examples, Morrisons, the supermarket chain, recently accounted for 1 in 10 of the total 'apprentices' in the UK, with something like 52,000 employed as such, many over the age of 25. What do these 'apprenticeships' involve? More profits by employing staff, many of whom were exiting workers, as apprentices, without giving them the career building skills, implied by the term [Apprentice, noun. A person learning a trade, Oxford English Dictionary].

Another example is big corporations taking on 'apprentices' for a few months, in an attempt to turn round their image in the press, starting with a picture of their smiling Chief Executive on the front of a newspaper with the apprentices! I'll be interested to see how many of these apprentices are offered full time jobs at the end of it, since to me, the whole thing has a whiff of cynicism.

A 'real' apprenticeship should involve an arrangement which is beneficial for both employer (in the shape of someone who is keen to graft), and the person doing the apprenticeship (in the form of being taught the skills necessary to make a success of themselves).

I see similarities in what is going on with apprentices with the scandal of big businesses entering into complicated offshore schemes to avoid paying their fair share of tax. It's all the same, since both may be legal under the letter of the law, but both are, to my mind, immoral and designed to rip off the government and all honest tax payers!

The area needs to be cleaned up. Here's what Vince Cable had to say about the Richard report into apprenticeships (written by entrepreneur Doug Richard, which examined apprenticeships):

'His recommendations will help us build on the current successes...and tailor a programme which is sustainable, high-quality and meets the changing needs of our economy in the decades to come.'

For the record I think Richard's report was inspired, but does anyone 'feel the love', not to mention any resolve to make changes for the better, in Vince's platitudes?

Back in the real world, the first thing that needs to be done is to put a stop to the bastardisation of the term 'apprentice.' It is of course a complete 'no-brainer' that a few weeks or months don't make the foundation of a career, and these shoddy imitations should be completely banned and anyone continuing to offer them, and that includes private training organisations, with or without government contracts, should be stopped and in some cases prosecuted. Now that might sound stupid and an over-reaction, but I take this issue incredibly seriously. When I began my apprenticeship I was told that if I worked hard and completed it, I would never be out of work for the rest of my life, and that has proved to be true.

We need to protect the term 'apprenticeship' and in this day and age that would seem to require a law. What I'm on about here is the same kind of protection as a Melton Mowbray pork pie, or Camembert cheese. There is a lot spoken about making job training applicable to the workplace, and there is no better way of doing this than having those who need the skills doing the training of the next generation. And it goes without saying that you can't learn a skill and get the required experience to combat virtually any situation in weeks or months . . . apprenticeships need to be measured in years!

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