SOAMES NICHOLAS Nicholas Soames is the Conservative MP for Mid Sussex.

Diversification is the key to economic success.  A diverse national economy provides more sustainable growth and is less vulnerable to the vagaries of the global economy.  Balanced economies are more resistant to exaggerated boom-and-bust cycles (though I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to claim that they abolish boom-and-bust), whereas those economies inordinately dependent on one particular sector increase their risk of calamity.

This is why we need to strengthen British industry.  Although the UK remains the world’s sixth largest manufacturer (measured by output), this masks an alarming decline over successive decades and governments.  In 1979, manufacturing accounted for 25.8% of the UK’s economy.  In 1997, this proportion was 20.3%.  By 2009, manufacturing made up just over 11% of the economy.

A core component of this Government’s growth strategy is apprenticeships, following a determined campaign by the Skills Minister, John Hayes MP.  We, as a country, have to produce more goods consumed nationally and abroad.  The nation’s skills base has to be  upgraded in order to achieve this, so the Government is committed to raising the status of apprenticeships and promoting them as a first-class way to start a career.  Practical prowess of this kind must no longer be seen as the poor relation to academic ability.  This mistake was unaffordable in the past and is even more so today, given Labour’s woeful legacy of escalating youth unemployment.

This is now finally understood in Westminster and Whitehall.  Funding for an extra 75,000 apprenticeships was announced last year, and this year’s Budget made a further £180 million available for the creation of 50,000 more.  Work experience placements will rise from 20,000 to 100,000, while the number of University Technical Colleges will be doubled.  During the next four years, there will be more apprenticeships than the UK has ever seen before – well over 400,000 in total. 

The positive effects of this new approach have quickly been evident: there were over 326,000 adult apprenticeship starts in the first nine months of this academic year 2010/11, compared to 279,000 adult apprenticeship starts in the entire of the preceding academic year.  With three months of the current academic year still to account for, there have already been some 47,000 more apprentice places than last year. 

Additionally, the newly created £25 million fund to support 10,000 more Advanced and Higher Apprenticeships will be a major boost to skills in the UK.  This will help satisfy the previously unmet demand for higher level, degree-equivalent skills that are vital to creating additional jobs and growth.

More, however, remains to be done.  Apprentices can make a crucial difference to the companies that employ them, but the recruitment process is still too cumbersome.  The enthusiasm of many employers for apprentices can be impeded by the bureaucracy involved.  And the lack of input by businesses into apprenticeship schemes, syllabi and qualifications discourages the very people whose participation should be sought.

We must acknowledge that not all employers will buy into ‘off-the-peg’ training approved by government and that they would prefer to tailor apprenticeships to meet their needs.  This means greater flexibility in what is provided.  Employers should be able to work directly with awarding bodies to design qualifications that fit their specific requirements.  We need to cut down on the paperwork employers complain about and ensure a better fit between how employers record and account for apprentices and their existing personnel management procedures.  All of this would boost the uptake and success of apprenticeships still further. 

The history of the British Isles is a history of innovation and industry.  Rediscovering this once-defining attribute, and refounding the prestige and recognition of skilled labour, will be to the benefit of us all.