Apprenticeships are really in vogue for the current Government. Apprenticeships are being touted as the vocational work-based 'gold standard' route to work nirvana – a way to achieve lifelong employability and success. And there is considerable evidence to support that view.
Our most successful workers who enjoy incredible labour market security have all come through the Apprenticeship route in one way or another. According to the official unemployment data, doctors have an unemployment rate of much less than 1%. It is the same story for lawyers or other professionals who have to finish their training by going through a form of Apprenticeship. So there is strong evidence that the best forms of an Apprenticeship lead to successful and productive careers of the type a whole economy can be built on.
So I was very interested in the recent announcements on Apprenticeship reform with the publication of 'The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Implementation Plan'. The reform will place employers at the heart of determining content and standards – no more Apprenticeship frameworks. Funding arrangements will not be announced until later in the year but it is almost certain that funding will go directly to employers who will then commission training or other support with Apprenticeships. There will be substantial change to the current framework. Eight sectors have signed up to a trailblazer programme where models will be tested, moving towards full implementation during 2015/16 and 2016/17.
As part of the Government's continued intent to create a truly demand-led system I can see the logic. By putting the employers in charge surely the system will become better calibrated to their need? Well let's hope so. The simple fact is that we need to deliver more cash into training. If this can help then it will be a great initiative. But the story of Apprenticeships hasn't been as rosy as we might expect or indeed desire.
The latest figures show that only 6% or so of young people aged 16-18 were enrolled on the scheme. Most Apprenticeships since 2010, when the large expansion in the programme began (to around 500,000 today), have gone to over 25s, many already in work. For Apprenticeships to be a gold standard we need to create a scheme that meets gold standard outcomes. Will employers be prepared to invest this much? Training a GP costs £500,000 over seven years. Quality is expensive and only quality should do.
Business models built on the principal of 'pile it high and sell it cheap' are the road to perdition for an advanced economy like the UK's. Yet in the recent past poorly designed and shockingly low quality training has been badged as an Apprenticeship. The commitment to at least a year's duration is a step in the right direction, but at their best our gold standard Apprenticeships require 10,000 hours of labour and input. To be good at something is a labour of love that requires a solid commitment from both apprentice and employer. And it is this commitment the new approach must foster.
Other countries – Germany springs to mind – understand this. They understand that it is the journey through an Apprenticeship that is the qualification. If that journey is too short, too straight and too dull, little will be learned or gained by either individual or employer.
So bring on the trailblazers. At Milton Keynes College we are all for them. We work with over 600 employers and want to work with far more. This sort of challenge to both employers and providers is something we will look forward to. But the stark point is that to establish a gold standard takes time, effort and hard cash. Will employers step up as the public sector steps back? That is the key question. Let's hope so.
Nick Isles is deputy principal of Milton Keynes College – follow him on Twitter at @dpmkcollege