David Meller is Chair of the Government’s Apprenticeship Delivery Board.
The best opportunity I got in my life was to start working in my family’s small business at the age of 16, having left school with four O-levels. Just like the young entrepreneurs in Alan Sugar’s The Apprentice, I had to roll up my sleeves and work my way up from the very bottom, rapidly learning all aspects of the five-person business. It was a steep learning curve. But it was the education that gave me the skills to grow a global firm, employing a thousand staff at its peak.
The experience has made me passionate about giving the opportunity to make the most of their talents to those young people who do not feel that the university route would be the best fit for them. But sometimes I fear that too many Conservatives see apprenticeships as something of a consolation prize for youngsters who can’t do A-levels or get into university.
That’s not how our competitors, such as Germany, see things. A couple of years ago, I was on a visit to Berlin to see how German apprenticeships work. I met three English lads who were working there, as part of Siemens’ excellent apprenticeship programme. Each of them had rejected the university route (and not the other way around!) and opted for an apprenticeship because they wanted to get on with their careers, learn to be real-world engineers and avoid student loans.
Their enthusiasm and progress inspired me to become, a year ago, Chair of the Government’s Apprenticeship Delivery Board. And since then, I have come to realise that, far from being a consolation prize for non-academic youngsters, apprenticeships are actually the route into the most prestigious jobs. All those wanting to be lawyers, accountants, architects, doctors and so on have to serve a formal apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships of all kinds are one of the most important life chances anyone can get. As Conservatives, we need to increase the number of these opportunities, improve their quality and, most importantly, make sure that they are available to those who need the most help with social mobility. We have worked hard to offer an aspirational package for all those families who work hard but still struggle to make ends meet: the right to own their own home, a high quality education for their children, and work that pays. Now we need to make the right to a high quality apprenticeship the new Conservative offer to all those who dream of a better future for themselves or their children.
There is a lot to do. We inherited a mess from Labour: instead of improving the apprenticeships brand, they ran it into the ground. Their apprenticeships too often had no employer, no accredited training, and no job at the end of a programme that lasted only a few weeks, rather than the months needed to gain proper skills.
First, we had to sort out the quality, scrapping meaningless qualifications, getting the most prestigious businesses on board and giving apprentices the chance to earn advanced qualifications, including degrees. And we’re trusting employers, rather than bureaucrats, to choose the best training providers for the apprentices they will employ. Second, we had to sort out the quantity: Labour was spending only £1 billion per year in 2010. By 2020, we will be spending £3.5 billion, funding three million quality apprenticeships. Third, we had to shift the bulk of apprenticeship funding from the taxpayer to big businesses, which we’ve done with the Apprenticeship Levy that the top two per cent of businesses will start paying in April 2017.
The current programme is a lot to deliver. But it still isn’t enough. I think there are large numbers of full-time students at FE colleges and universities who would prefer an apprenticeship, if it wasn’t for the mistaken view of apprenticeships as a second-rate choice. Germany has far fewer young people going to university than the UK, and far more employers offering apprenticeships. Up to 30 per cent of our university students start degrees which they won’t complete, or which won’t offer them the graduate-level jobs or earnings they expect. That’s bad for them, as well as for the taxpayer, left to pick up the costs of student loans.
Similarly, I would challenge the whole notion of full-time vocational courses in FE. We know the best way to learn vocational skills is on-the-job, with part-time education to support workplace learning. And we should go further, putting in place schemes to ensure school-leavers all over the country have access to the best opportunities, regardless of whether they choose the academic or vocational route. For example, we financially support young people moving anywhere in the country to go to university. We should have a similar system for the highest quality apprenticeships, to avoid youngsters in deprived areas missing out on great opportunities away from home.
We also need to encourage employers to move away from their preoccupation with university graduates and recognise the value of apprenticeships. It is great to see organisations from all sectors, like Barclays, Compass Group and Crossrail re-opening their school-leaver recruitment, but we need the same to happen across all sorts of professions and in bigger numbers. We need this to become common practice.
The Conservative crusade for apprenticeships should not just be limited to young people. Adults also need much better access to skilled jobs, especially when they want to change career or climb up to another level. A good example of where we need an apprenticeship route for adults is nursing. We have a desperate shortage of British nurses and, in some years, any nurses at all. The entry route for the profession is a degree in nursing, but this deters many adults from retraining as nurses and many youngsters from learning the profession. We urgently need an apprenticeship route where people can learn on the job, as they used to, along with modular accreditation that allows people to undertake some tasks before they are fully qualified. I would love to see thousands of social care workers breaking out of dead-end low-paid jobs by becoming mature apprentice nurses.
Our Prime Minister Theresa May wants to restore people’s belief that the economy works for the many, not the few. There is no better way to do this than apprenticeships. And if you speak to working class families, they will tell you that’s exactly what they want from politicians and business.
So let’s put ourselves at their service, and deliver.