Charlie Mullins OBE, Founder of Pimlico Plumbers

In recent times, we’ve been greedily feasting on an abundance of political news, good, bad and ugly. With Brexit, multiple scandals, and a whole lot of reshuffling going on – it’s safe to say there’s been enough stories pumping out of Westminster to keep us busy.

But amidst the negotiations and scandal, business heads like myself have been patiently waiting for some real reforms and policy making…a void I hoped would be filled by the much anticipated Autumn Budget.

Unfortunately, after listening to Hammond’s speech, the proposed reforms have left me more fearful, than fulfilled.

Hammond has put forward the proposal of a National Retraining Scheme, which will forge a partnership between the government, the CBI and the TUC “with an aim to set strategic direction” in support of digital skills and expansion of the construction sector. Hammond’s hopes are that this will boost the number of people within each of these sectors.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a supporter of any investment in the Trades, but is has to be done in the right way.

In the UK we have been suffering from an ever growing skills shortage, and with the Brexit burdening businesses, we’re faced with the likely prospect of losing access to migrant labour. But this so called National Retraining Scheme is only a shortcut to disaster.

Fact is, no handyman or semi-skilled construction worker, can learn the intricacies of the job without the formal training of an apprenticeship. These courses run over a few years for a reason and at the end of it, the apprentices are equipped with all the tools to get the job done. This Scheme is nothing but a way to breathe more cowboys into the industry.

Honestly, it’s insulting to think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer believes that these rapid retraining courses will be enough to give people the, skills, knowledge and experience to build reliable houses with first class construction, carpentry, plumbing and electrics.

It takes years of training to get the job done and it is a job which isn’t easy – believe me! As an apprentice, you learn how to be the best of the best in a difficult job. You can’t dilute the training, and the only way to get the best out of a trade is to learn it through an apprenticeship. These National Retraining Schemes are only good for creating a false environment – real training can only be learnt in an apprenticeship through businesses.

On the topic of apprenticeships, I was however pleased to see Hammonds promise (albeit a lukewarm one) to monitor the current flexibility of spending attached to the Apprenticeships Levy. In principle, I’ve always agreed that the Levy is great, as it puts that extra pressure on businesses who lag behind on the apprentice recruitment front. This in turn gets more young people into work than ever. But the principles of the Levy and the way it has been implemented is flawed.

If we look at the figures, the number of apprentices starting in May, June and July were down by 61% (figures published by the DfE) compared with the same time last year - which to me makes the pledge of 3million new apprentices by 2020 a distant dream. Frankly, it’s no surprise that this drop in figures coincided directly with the Apprenticeship Levy rule change. Until the government make changes to the system that will reinforce incentives for employers to take on apprentices, the skills gap and the productivity levels in this country will continue to suffer.

My final gripe with Hammond’s speech in relation to Education reform, is on the issue of T-Levels.

I’m sceptical about T-Levels because I still feel there’s so many unanswered questions, the main one being; why exactly are these T-levels being introduced? Four out of the 15 branches of the T-Level courses will be primarily delivered through apprenticeships, with the entire 15 branches closely aligned to new apprenticeship standards.

I would argue that these T-Levels are distracting from an already successfully scheme; apprenticeships. Investment that is being pumped into this new qualification should be spent on bolstering the current apprenticeship scheme and making more businesses take apprentices on, rather than doing T-Levels in college-based programmes. Give these youngsters the hands-on experience that apprenticeships are known for, and the skills gap will start to shrink in an instant. I understand the government are trying to increase accessibility to technical courses but for me the answer is, and always will be apprenticeships.

Charlie Mullins OBE, Founder of Pimlico Plumbers

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