From education to employment

New parliamentary group launched to discuss Apprenticeships during time of evolution

Apprenticeships are receiving a great deal of attention at the moment, from government, the media and businesses. Policy changes, investment, incentives, slashing of red tape and greater support for employers have all been announced to ensure learners have options during a time of rising unemployment and increasingly costly higher education.

This greater attention has facilitated a dramatic rise in apprenticeship numbers. Between 2009/10 and 2010/11, there was an increase of more than 63 per cent. If you look back even further, over the last ten years, their numbers have risen by 172 per cent. This trend is only likely to continue and we need to ensure that the number of places is not increasing just for the sake of it, but that the tens of thousands of new apprentices joining the ranks every year are doing so with the belief that they are giving themselves the best start to their careers. Protecting the apprenticeship brand is also important for employers, who must be able to depend on apprentices to achieve a certain level of education and relevant workplace skills.

This mission has led to the creation of a new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on apprenticeships. Over the next twelve months, the APPG will bring MPs, employers, and training providers together to discuss how best to promote apprenticeship training. It will focus its attention on how the current model can meet changing demands in traditional and emerging industries, and how all sectors can benefit from high quality employer-led apprenticeships.

The group, which has been brought together by Gordon Birtwistle MP, the Liberal Democrat MP for Burnley,  is being  supported EAL and IMI Awards – both industry awarding organisations with a track record of supporting Apprenticeships.  Gordon began his working career as a craft apprentice for a textile manufacturer, and has over 50 years’ experience as an engineer and employer in industry, so he is ideally placed to lead the group forward and ensure that it is addressing the issues that matter to businesses and learners.

Apprenticeships are rightfully respected by many industry employers already, because they combine the practical and theoretical learning that is so important for young people and adults to succeed in the workplace. In a recent independent survey carried out on behalf of EAL, it was discovered that 70 per cent of industry employers see apprenticeships as at least of equal value to a university degree to help people prepare for and progress in the workplace. Over 25 per cent said they were more relevant.

We must now learn from and build on this track record, so that we can continue to meet employers’ changing needs and bridge skills gaps in areas that are vital for the recovery, stability and future growth of the economy. To achieve this, the APPG aims to push for improved access to high quality provision and give businesses the necessary support to meet their skills needs.

The APPG has been launched in the wake of a series of government policy announcements around apprenticeships over the past few months. Among them: £1,500 payment incentives for small businesses to take on apprentices; a £25m investment fund to establish more degree-equivalent Higher Apprenticeships; £250m boost for vocational training; slashed red tape to make it more straight forward for businesses to take on apprentices and advertise vacancies; and tighter guidelines around the minimum length of programmes for apprentices of all ages. The changes are a step in the right direction to help ensure that employers and learners can continue to rely on the vocational pathway, as well as to promote further growth and continued success in getting people into employment.

Apprenticeships have never been as widely accepted and promoted in this country as they are now. They have become a central pathway into highly skilled jobs. To reiterate Prime Minister David Cameron: “By making apprenticeships a gold standard option for ambitious young people, we are sending a message that technical excellence is as highly valued as academic prowess.” The same message should be extended to anyone looking to enter a new sector or advance in their current roles, no matter of age. Apprenticeships are a pathway to a brighter future for everyone.

Ann Watson is managing director of EAL, the specialist awarding organisation for industry qualifications

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