Could do better

Posted on 28 Mar 2013

Debate over the national curriculum and drives to increase apprenticeship provision obfuscate a serious problem, says Will Stirling; many young people are simply unemployable.

It was poignant to listen to the debate on the BBC’s Question Time on March 21 about the new school curriculum proposed by education secretary Michael Gove.

The emotive debate, which centred on which subjects children should learn at school, oscillated from conservative laissez-faire to free school reform, and led to a waspish spat between Gove and Labour minister Emily Thornberry. Great television but I noted that nobody on the panel or the audience took the employer’s point of view about education.

Any education system should be founded on fixed pillars of commonly-used, fact-based subjects, such as teaching maths and English language, and then allowed more freedom to evolve as the child gets older (a personal opinion).

But the contretemps between Gove and Shadow Attorney General Thornberry seemed all the more petty because neither attempted to approach the subject from the employer’s perspective; how should young people be equipped to be useful to companies who must remain competitive in a global economy.

At a dinner for West Midlands’ manufacturers on March 20, I was impressed with the candour these managing directors’ shared on the challenges their companies face. There is little bullsh1t in Birmingham. Perhaps the most candid subject of all that night was the calibre of job applicants.

In the week following National Apprenticeship Week, it might have been easy to bathe in a warm light that the UK’s apprenticeship recruitment drive is a runaway success, that UK plc is on track to fill the yawning skills gap in engineering and manufacturing skills in the next 20 years. Here are some home truths from the coal face of the Black Country.

One company that is involved in the automotive sector has abandoned its apprenticeship scheme altogether. Why? The training provider was providing candidates and so fulfilling the criteria to receive its funding. But the quality of people was so dreadful that the manufacturer has abandoned the scheme and returned to hiring graduates only. New recruits rarely turned up on time, some skipped an entire day without leave. They were caught stealing factory property. The MD felt the training provider was doing the bare minimum to pocket the grant. “It was a bad experience and we will not return to that for a while,” said the boss.

“Of the 40 people identified as candidate apprentices and booked for interview, not a single person turned up”

Another company, which develops software for manufacturing applications, said poor calibre applicants were not restricted to apprentices.

It advertised 10 graduate vacancies and nine placements at 30 universities. Of the 1180 applications, just 45, or 3.8%, were of an adequate standard to interview.

Most applicants had good, relevant degrees in mathematics, engineering and computer science, but came up short in key employability skills; aptitude, personal presentation, an understanding of business basics. To find one ideal recruit for a technical vacancy, just 45 interviews were granted from a pool of 140 deemed worthy of a 16-day on-site assessment. The quality of candidates was just very poor.

The most extraordinary tale, however, came from the MD of a subcontract electronics company.

It worked with a local training provider to find candidates for three apprentice places. The provider found 40 candidates that met the criteria, a good number. Admittedly the vacancy was for a basic apprenticeship to reach NVQ Level One and required no A Levels. A day and venue was booked to interview the applicants. Of the 40 who were identified, not one turned up. Not a single person. The MD was staggered, both at the appalling turn-out and at the wilful disregard for a job opportunity in a region with above average unemployment.

This malaise is not unique to the West Midlands. I have heard low calibre apprenticeship and graduate stories told in Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow and elsewhere. It’s why worthy regional work experience programmes have been established, such as Work-Wise run by Business and Education South Yorkshire.

The UK apprenticeship drive, led by organisations like Semta, the National Apprenticeship Service and awarding body EAL, is doing a commendable job to push apprenticeship numbers up. But policy makers and education leaders must also confront the bald truth that schools and often parents are not preparing kids adequately for the work place.

We can debate whether children should learn history, Mandarin Chinese or CDT, but I would suggest schools be measured more on practical employability metrics, as much as Ofsted-defined academic grades, if the UK is actually going to sustain its manufacturing base.

Will Stirling