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    When Hayley Phippen says that she hopes that the lighting in the main Olympic stadium works, that is because the 23 year old helped to install them. She is one of many young apprentices learning their trade on the site and is proud that she is about to qualify as an electrician.

    She and her work mates, Jake Vinnicombe, 20,  who helped put in the toilets, and Jack Budd, 18, who has been planting trees and landscaping  the 100 hectares, will be speaking in one of a number of events that unionlearn is holding for Apprenticeship Week (February 7-11).

    The construction industry has a long history of nurturing apprentices, so it will be interesting for John Hayes, the skills minister, to hear from a group of young apprentices in the more modern disciplines of IT and business administration, at another conference in London, which will be exploring the role of unions and apprenticeships.  Scott Walker first turned to his union when he was being bullied by colleagues, but his UCATT rep was also instrumental in negotiating with his line manager at City of Lincoln Council to enable him to continue his studies and he now has an HNC in business administration.

    It is a tough time for young people. The recent figures showing that the UK economy shrank by 0.5 per cent in the last quarter was chilling news, particularly for young people who are feeling the brunt of the jobs downturn. Nearly one million young people are unemployed and almost twice as many graduates are now out of work compared to before the recession.
    The scrapping of EMA, the replacement of the Future Jobs Fund with a less generous scheme and the increase in tuition fees has squeezed the options for many teenagers. This, coupled with the raising of the participation age to 18 in 2015, has raised the stakes for FE colleges and learning providers.  As schools come under pressure to offer more academic routes, such as the English Bac, colleges will have to respond to the other students, such as Hayley, who prefer to learn by doing.

    With a second piece of education legislation now starting its journey in Parliament and a major review of the national curriculum in train, there is still vital missing part of the jigsaw: vocational education.  We await Professor Alison Wolf's imminent 14-19 review, however it is no secret that apprenticeships will feature large.  As university places are cut and teenagers think again about being saddled with major debts, apprenticeships will become more attractive.  There are plenty of benefits, according to our young apprentices.  They all appreciated being able to earn as they learned, but also spoke of the advantages of being taught technical skills by experts in the field, having the experience of working in a team and in some cases having to deal with the public.  As IT apprentice John Patterson said: "I hope that if an employer has two cvs, one from a graduate and one from me, with its industry-recognised qualifications and evidence of hands-on experience, it will be mine which will shine."

    But too few employers are stepping forward to meet this increased demand.  Many are unused to having teenagers in the workplace and others will not want to run the risk of taking them on without much prospect of being able to provide work at the end.

    Unionlearn is working to persuade employers to offer more, and better, apprenticeship places, with the chance for all learners to progress to level 3 and beyond.  We are working with government and the National Apprenticeship Service to tackle the problem of gender imbalance: there is a 20 per cent pay gap between men and women, with young women tending to go into the lower paid sectors such as hairdressing and childcare. Many apprenticeships, such as hairdressing , social care, construction or engineering are almost entirely segregated by gender – unlike any other area of employment.

    But most of all we – and the unions – will be providing a voice for these young people as they find their way in the workplace. Later this year, unionlearn plans to hold the first national conference for apprentices themselves. Watch this space.

    Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC's learning and training organisation

     

    Read other FE News articles by Tom Wilson:

    Preparing for a tough 2011

    Learning from the German skills system

    Unions can be a bridge to the world of work

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