Robert Halfon is a member of the 1922 Committee Executive and MP for Harlow
Since the late 1960s, the prestige and culture of apprenticeships in our country has diminished. Apprenticeships came to be seen as something for ‘second class’ citizens, and technical schools were seen as only being suitable for those who were not academically gifted. By contrast, students who attended university would be regarded as having ‘achieved’, and sometimes even received accolades in their local newspaper.
During this time – compared to our European cousins – the number of apprenticeships in the UK fell dramatically. By 2008/09, Austria, Germany and Switzerland had nearly four times as many apprentices per 1,000 employed people as we did in the United Kingdom.
Under the Conservative-led Coalition huge efforts have been made both to increase the supply, and change the culture, of apprenticeships. Through John Hayes, and now Matt Hancock, the number of apprenticeship starts have increased from 279,000 in 2009/10, to 520,600 in 2011/12 – a total increase of 86 per cent.
The Government has also begun to set-up pre-apprentice schools (University Technical Colleges) around the country, which will amount to a rebirth of state of the art, modern, technical schools, and put students on a conveyor belt to full time apprenticeships.
But with one million young people unemployed, we need to transform apprenticeships still further. Completing an apprenticeship is almost certainly one of the top ways for young people to gain employment. In the last year, just seven per cent of people who completed an apprenticeship were unemployed, compared to nine per cent of graduates who are unemployed after six months, and an overall youth unemployment rate of 21 per cent.
Why does this matter? One of the best ways to improve the cost of living is by improving skills. It means that those looking for work will get better jobs, and better pay.
We can make apprenticeships into a mass movement in the following three ways:
First: Transforming the culture. To be an apprentice should be an occupation of prestige; as good as going to Cambridge University. The Government should establish a Royal Society for Apprenticeships which would recognise every apprentice, in the same way the Royal College of Surgeons recognises consultants, the Royal College of Nurses recognises nurses, or the Law Society recognises solicitors.
The NUS card for apprentices (which I helped to establish in 2011) should be enhanced, and offer apprentices trade union type services, like health insurance, cheaper loans, retail discounts et al.
In schools, surveys show that few teachers advise their pupils about apprenticeships. Research by EDGE (the skills network) found that two-thirds of teachers regard their knowledge of apprenticeships as poor, and just one in four teachers recommend apprenticeships over Higher Education. Teachers must be trained about the benefits of apprenticeships. They should be a compulsory part of careers guidance. Secondary schools should be advised to hold apprenticeship fairs with local businesses to promote the range of jobs on offer, and foster a parity of esteem.
Second: Introducing an ‘Apprentice Premium’ for 19 to 24 year olds. The Government has already invested £1.5 billion in apprenticeships last year. But more support needs to be given to 19-24 year olds.
At present, 50 per cent of the cost of training 19-24 year old apprentices is paid for, compared to 100 per cent for 16-18 year olds. There needs to be a new Apprentice Premium for 19 to 24 year olds, so that they can have their full training paid for, and they have an equal chance of being taken on for employment. Although costly, it would save money in the long term as fewer young people would be receiving welfare – which currently amounts to £4.8 billion per year.
Third: Boosting apprentices through Government, procurement, and education. The Government should lead by example and hire apprentices in all Government departments.
Every year the public sector spends £240 billion on public procurement (of which £188 billion is in Whitehall). Contractors employed by the public sector should be compelled to ensure that 5% of their workforce are in vocational education. It has been estimated that this could create around 120,000 apprenticeships. Pilots run by the DWP have been hugely successful and other Government departments should now follow suit.
David Cameron has said that he wants to see a University Technical College in every major town. This should be a manifesto commitment in 2015.
Transforming the prestige of apprenticeships, a new Apprentice Premium, and Government by example are three ways in which the Conservatives can show that they are on the side of hardworking people. Increasing apprenticeships in our country is about the cost of living: better skills lead to better wages. If we are to create a highly skilled nation, we need to offer all young people who do not want to go to university a chance to succeed in the workplace.