Iain Gray: More to apprenticeships than meets the eye

Why do politicians love apprenticeships so much? Picture: Ian Georgeson
Why do politicians love apprenticeships so much? Picture: Ian Georgeson
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SOLVING youth unemployment crisis can’t just be a numbers game, says Iain Gray

This week has seen a spat over apprenticeship numbers. With 100,000 young Scots out of work, and long-term youth unemployment having quadrupled in the past year, training opportunities for young people should be a hot topic and were debated yesterday at Holyrood.

But why do politicians love apprenticeships so much? It has nothing to do with Lord Sugar and his dog-eat-dog contestants. The picture of apprenticeship we like best is of the putative craftsman, learning “on the tools”, skills honed by generations under the watchful, but kindly, eye of a time-served tradesman.

For sentimentalists of the left, it conjures a world of working class solidarity and the dignity of work by hand and brain. For sentimentalists of the right, it epitomises a time when young working people knew their place and understood that university was not for the likes of them.

There is family as well as folk memory too. My grandfather was an apprentice. So was my father, my uncles and brothers-in-law. I suspect that is typical of many Labour politicians of my generation.

My family worked their way into management or business, but they all started by serving their time over four or five years in traditional apprenticeships. It gave them a lifelong capacity for creativity and craftsmanship that I could only envy after my four years at university.

The truth is that apprenticeships do derive extraordinary power from their combination of learning and doing the job. Rightly, apprenticeships command real confidence from young people, parents and employers alike.

Yet by the 1990s, apprenticeships were in decline. Government had all but ceased to fund them, with a significant shift towards full-time further education study instead. Then New Labour fell in love with apprenticeships again, creating Modern Apprenticeships, which kept the concept of in-work training, but were shorter and designed for the new economy, retail, leisure and customer care as well as bricklaying and plumbing.

The SNP’s affection for apprenticeships is more recent. When the party came to power in 2007, it cut 10 per cent from the budget for them, and abolished whole programmes in hospitality, management and customer services. They also got rid of the 20+ programme for older starts.

Then, in 2009, the Scottish Parliament rejected the SNP’s budget. Labour’s key budget “ask” was an increase in apprenticeship funding, to provide 18,500 new starts a year.

In the wake of the defeat, I met Alex Salmond, who confided that they could find the funds, but were not sure they could find the places since each one needed a job too.

I explained how we believed that could be done. But the First Minister had another concern. He did not want this to become a numbers game, with Labour complaining if he was a few short of 18,500. I agreed, and the budget went through.

So began the SNP’s love affair with apprenticeships. Its last budget included funding for 25,000 places and the figure is used as prima facie evidence that the party is dealing with youth unemployment.

Yet, this has become a numbers game after all. For some time the talk in the training world has been that Skills Development Scotland (SDS), charged with delivering 25,000 apprenticeships, has been taking desperate measures to get the places out the door. Employers have been asked to identify any young employees who could be “converted” to apprentices overnight, in an exercise which is all about quantity not quality.

Last week Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale received a long overdue letter from SDS containing evidence to support these stories. Last year 39 per cent of apprenticeship starts were undertaken by employees who had been in a job for six months or more.

Make no mistake, in-work training and upskilling is important, but the rebranding of 10,000 existing employees as apprentices does nothing to help the 100,000 young Scots who are unemployed.

Then the figures show that almost half of the 25,000 apprenticeships were placed in the final quarter of the financial year. The SNP seems to have rediscovered non-traditional apprenticeships too, because almost all of the increase to 25,000 has come from apprenticeships in retail, hospitality and food manufacture.

Apprenticeships in traditional areas such as engineering and construction have flat lined, or even declined. Yet these are exactly the sectors where the likes of Scottish Engineering and ScottishPower are warning of skills shortages.

It is hard not to conclude that they reveal a last minute dash to get numbers up at all costs, just to reach the 25,000 figure. The SNP’s rebuttal criticism has been typically splenetic and includes the claim that the party has doubled apprenticeships since Labour’s last year in power.

That is not true either. Until 2008, a modern apprenticeship had to be accredited at Scottish Vocational Qualification Level 3.

In that year, certain Level 2 courses were redesignated as apprenticeships. In fact 11,000 of those 25,000 places last year are in this category. These courses usually last six months, not two to four years and when Labour was in government they simply did not count as apprenticeships.

The apprenticeship programme is a big part of the answer to the youth unemployment crisis. But what we have now is failing to help those who need it most, failing to match training to skills shortages in the economy and using rebadging, rebranding and redesignating to hit an artificial target. Meanwhile, how many apprentices get jobs at the end of training is not even counted. Shamefully, the Scottish Government has also quietly dropped a guarantee that redundant apprentices will be found a new job to complete their training.

There was a time when the first job every apprentice was given was to make his toolbox, which he would carry all his working life. That is how important an apprenticeship should be. If the SNP really loves apprenticeships, it has to learn to understand them and what they can do, not just count them.

• Iain Gray is Labour MSP for East Lothian and his party’s former Holyrood leader