From education to employment

Apprenticeships are back in fashion

This month’s Apprenticeship Week (February 1-5) is celebrating the highest ever level of people starting the job-based qualifications and the highest ever completion rates of 70 per cent.

They are being re-invented for the modern workplace. You can now study how to be a football coach, write a computer game, run a nail bar or decommission a nuclear power station. They are also tapping into the new “green” and high-tech industries. For young people, the choice is clear: why saddle yourself with debt and take your chances on the precarious graduate jobs market when you can earn as you learn and be taught by experts in the field?

They can also be used to bring new blood into traditional industries. Proskills UK, the employer-led organisation of the print industry, said research and consultation with employers show that there is a need to improve skill-levels across the board from technician to manager. With the average age in the printing industry 48, the printing company Polestar is using apprenticeships and an undergraduate scheme to bring in new talent. It has cost the company £1.5 million over three years to train 84 apprentices and Polestar says the benefits already outweigh the costs.

In his skills review, Lord Leitch recommended that there should be at least 500,000 apprenticeships in the UK by 2020. A record 239,900 people started apprenticeships in the 2008/09 academic year. The Government has a new target of having 35,000 advanced and higher level apprenticeships over the next two years and the qualification will attract UCAS points, putting them on a par with traditional academic qualifications. The Conservatives are promising to create 100,000 additional apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship training places every year and also make it easier for companies to run them.

unionlearn and the TUC is working with its members, Sector Skills Councils, and employers to ensure that these apprenticeships are top quality courses. For apprenticeships must not become discredited like the YTS, YOP and Modern Apprenticeships of the past. Politicians will use them at their peril as a quick fix to the UK’s NEET problem.

That is why the PCS union has signed a protocol with the Cabinet Office to ensure that apprentices cannot be taken on as a substitute for jobs which have been classified as surplus.

Young people must be treated fairly. That is why BECTU has drawn up an apprenticeship checklist which calls for the London Living Wage for London-based apprentices, access to a mentor, union recruitment opportunities at induction stage, and other good practices. The TUC is campaigning to make sure that there is fair pay for apprentices, covered by the National Minimum Wage legislation. Research from the Learning and Skills Council showed that drop-out rates were significantly higher when poor wages were paid.

unionlearn has courses for all union reps to help them understand how apprenticeships work, so they can support their members by recommending the best courses for them and mentoring them through the apprenticeship process.

The success of apprenticeships should be built on so that they develop as robust qualifications and set a gold standard within work-based qualifications.

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation

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