It's a system that's worked since the dawn of time; the master craftsman takes on a young protégé and - through practical experience - teaches them the tricks of the trade until they're proficient enough to start trading alone. Today it's known as an apprenticeship, and they're as vital now as they ever were.
On the surface, then, the 200,000 new public sector apprenticeships recently announced by David Cameron, as part of the government's plan to create three million vocational training courses before 2020, can only be a good thing. However, Ofsted - the government department that monitors the performance of education in the UK - has warned that for this policy to prove effective, apprenticeships must remain of the highest standard . So, what is the current state of the apprenticeship in the UK, and how can we ensure the scheme remains fit for purpose?
While apprenticeships are widely recognised as a vital cog in the wheels of our industry, Ofsted's research has found that some of them do not do enough to provide apprentices with the skills needed to obtain a job at the end of their course. The creation of 3 million apprenticeships is a strong stat that plays well with the press and reflects well on the government, but if some of those new apprentices are simply being brought into companies to act as chief tea makers and errand monkeys, surely we should be asking if it's an effective policy, or is it all one big a government PR stunt?
Of course, this is a cynical, worst case scenario view. I'm not suggesting that apprenticeships on the whole are a waste of time. However, it's far from unfair to pose the question: if there's a vast increase in the number of apprenticeships available, will the quality drop significantly?
Because of this, the government are taking steps to crack down on fake and substandard apprenticeships, by moving to enshrine the definition of 'apprenticeship ,' in law so that it cannot be abused and exploited. This is an important step. Sadly, at present, some young people will carry out what they believe to be an apprenticeship, only to finish and find out that they're not qualified.
The reforms also hope to bring the legal standing of an apprenticeship closer to that of a degree, so that apprentices' time is not wasted, and that what they're working towards results in a proper qualification. The punishment for companies not adhering to the new rules could be monetary fines, or even prosecution in Magistrates court.
Another promising aspect of the government's plans is their pledge to rank different apprenticeships in league tables by 2018. In the same vein as the way in which university courses are ranked, apprenticeships would be graded by their effect on promotion prospects, future earnings, and skills learned by participants. Indeed, there has long been a disparity between the information provided to prospective university students, and prospective apprentices. While university applicants have league tables, open days, and UCAS to refer to, apprentices are provided with much less information. This disparity may have something to do with the fact that only 6% of school leavers take up the opportunity to do an apprenticeship.
The proposed reforms can, of course, only be a good thing. If carried out correctly, then the demand for apprenticeships among young people will surely grow. Additionally, the ability to compare and contrast different courses is an invaluable resource. It's taken for granted that university students should be able to weigh up the merits of the University of Nottingham vs those of the University of Exeter, yet apprenticeship students don't have that same privilege. Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called for a UCAS style programme for school leavers who had no wish to go to university at the tail end of his much maligned stint as Deputy Prime Minister. He may have been onto something.
In an age where the UK - traditionally an industrial powerhouse - is struggling to keep up with modern day manufacturing superpowers like China, we need young people coming through the education system with a strong grasp of vocational skills. Last year, David Cameron said that his apprenticeship plans are a "crucial part of our long-term economic plan to secure a better future for Britain." If we want to ensure that Cameron's 'better future' is realised, we need to ensure that our apprenticeship programmes are of the highest quality.
Simon Thomas is the Managing Director of Asset International, a leading manufacturer of Weholite large diameter plastic pipes. Asset International Ltd supplies bespoke designs to the water and construction industries, from surface drainage to foul sewers and inter-process pipework: www.weholite.co.uk