Today is Vocational Qualifications day, and yet a skills deficit has blighted our economy for many years. Just one in three British workers now qualify as apprentices, or with technical skills. Whereas in France, it is one in two. And Germany are even better, with two out of three workers qualified with proper technical skills.
France and Germany are miles ahead of us, and as a result our workforce is reckoned to be 15 per cent less productive.
One of the worst legacies of the last Government was a generation of young people lost to benefits, or trudging endlessly round a hamster’s wheel of six-month temporary courses.
Despite the billions spent on the New Deal, for example, around 100,000 of those who left school in Tony Blair’s first term never held down a job, and are now in their thirties, having never worked in their lives.
Last year, I wrote on Conservative Home about the tragedy of the one million unemployed young people, left to us by the last Government. The new Government’s plans for 250,000 extra apprenticeships and University Technical Colleges are welcome, as apprenticeships are our best answer to this crisis. But we need to go further.
For apprenticeships to work, we need to change the whole culture, by giving apprentices pride and prestige. And ultimately this means giving them similar rights and benefits to academic students.
I have long-argued that the best method of doing this is through a Royal Society of Apprentices – rather like the Law Society or British Medical Association, with a social and professional network, similar to that provided by Universities. I have tabled this Commons Motion and brought it up on the floor of the Commons.
Since last year, I have been working on the first plank of this with the NUS and private businesses. After many months of work, I am pleased to announce the chance of an exclusive new Apprentice Card for every apprentice, which will be launched at 3.30pm today in the House of Commons.
The Card will finally put apprentices on a level-playing field with academic students and other professions, giving apprentices discounts at high street stores, as well as free support services and legal advice – estimated at a value of £500.
Other benefits are planned for the future, such as social events, mentoring, and careers guidance.
The NUS are supplying the card infrastructure, for a pilot scheme with the training organisations PERA, GTA England, Kaplan, the Association of Accounting Technicians, and Harlow College.
Together they represent tens of thousands of apprentices across the UK, working in companies like JCB, Jaguar Land Rover, Next clothing, and other top British brands.
This Apprentice Card is a small step, but significant nevertheless. It adds to the incentives for becoming an apprentice, and will I hope be the foundation stone of a Royal Society of Apprentices – something I am working towards with the support of John Hayes, the Skills Minister.
Above all, we are fortunate to have a Government that has re-geared all spending onto apprenticeships, and totally scrapped the upfront fees that deterred young people in the past.
In years to come, never again will Britain be the poor man of Europe when it comes to apprenticeships. Because we are putting young people on the conveyor belt to jobs and opportunities for the future. Ultimately, that is what the Apprentice Card is all about.