Second Opinion: Apprenticeships

Students in Agricultural engineering take down notes from their tutor. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Students in Agricultural engineering take down notes from their tutor. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ONCE all but immersed in the backwater of career development, apprenticeships are back in vogue. At the close of the 20th century, there were no more than 112,000 apprentices in the UK where currently there are 870,000. In Scotland, more than 77,000 apprenticeships have been created during the past three years, with 36,000 young people in subsidised workplace training.

The glory days of apprenticeships came with the introduction of a levy in the mid-1960s which every firm had to pay whether they delivered training or not. Calculated on employment numbers and the total wages bill, it meant that big businesses tended to have their own in-house academies training more workers than the company required, with the “surplus” taking up jobs at firms that couldn’t afford such programmes.

The incentive to train was reduced when the levy was removed in the early 1990s. This was followed by a shift away from industry – which slumped because of cheap overseas labour – towards white collar work as the main driver of UK economic growth.

There followed a push by New Labour to get half of all young people into higher education through a programme announced by Tony Blair in 2001. Although well-intentioned, this move – in the words of Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael – had “unintended consequences”.

He didn’t spell out those ramifications during a visit last week to the ClydeUnion factory in Glasgow, where US owner SPX currently has 28 apprentices in various stages of training, but the result is easy to see: too many over-qualified applicants chasing too few professional jobs, and an increasing number of them bearing the additional pressure of debts accumulated through their education.

Apprentices, on the other hand, at least earn a wage during their education.

Governments like this because it generates tax revenues, and these trainees stay off the unemployment rolls.

For all it merits, though, apprenticeship has not been an unmitigated success.

There is ample evidence that targets to increase apprenticeships have in some cases led to them being watered down to the point that low-level workplace training is substituted for a proper, rigorous programme of learning.

Jobs that many have been termed “office junior” are now badged “administration apprentice”, saving those employers adopting this sort of grading considerable sums of cash.

Higher education policy should never have been a numbers game, and likewise, neither should apprenticeships.

Hitting targets makes for good publicity and helps keep unemployment figures down, but that won’t necessarily produce the next generation of skilled workers needed for long-term economic growth. «