Great expectations

Posted on 24 Jan 2011 by The Manufacturer

TM’s Jane Gray considers the potential of apprenticeships to solve Britain’s unemployment woes.

Figures released last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that youth unemployment in the UK has hit an all time high with 951,000 individuals between 16 and 24 out of work in the three months to November 2010, a rise of 32,000 on the previous quarter.

This overwhelming increase in the number of young people experiencing joblessness (admittedly part of a general trend irrespective of age) has caused many to ask whether we are looking at a case of can’t work or won’t work. The Telegraph’s , Alasdair Palmer has put the case that available jobs are being filled by an influx of immigrant workers, but is this an easy opt-out from responsibility?

The public sector is not a feasible area for job creation in the current financial climate but, with government support for the provision of apprenticeships, could private business be doing more to provide gainful employment and professional development for young people who are particularly vulnerable to alienation from the workplace and de-motivated by early experience of living from the public purse?

At present government will fully fund apprenticeship training for all individuals aged 16-18 and has furthermore pledged to support the provision of 75,000 adult apprenticeships (available to those aged 19 +) over the next three years. This leaves employers with the minimal burden of paying the apprentice’s wage, a minimum of £2.50/hr for under 19s, while simultaneously benefitting from the increased productivity and capacity for growth that the National Apprenticeship Service has said they see as the consistent outcome of engagement with apprenticeship schemes.

There is of course long-term sustainability to be considered, it would be counterproductive to create a false wealth of apprenticeship places that are not backed up by realistic growth prospects and therefore opportunities for full employment on qualification. This is a problem which has been recognised within industry as Les Agnew, training process owner at Sellafield Ltd, a Cumbria-based nuclear engineering company and winner of the National Apprenticeship Service’s Macro Employer of the Year Award 2010, explains: “We currently offer around 80 apprenticeship places a year and we usually get around 700 applications. The opportunities available with Sellafield, which is by far the largest employer in the area, are well known and longstanding in the local community.”

In order to grow the number of places that this plethora of applicants can aspire to however, “Sellafield is trying to encourage our supply chain to increase the number of apprenticeships and involve a consideration of apprenticeship provision in our contract tendering process for suppliers. We do see concerns however from employers who are reluctant to make a three to four year commitment to young person without the confidence that they will be able to see that contract through. The ongoing wage cost is also a concern, particularly in the current economic climate with all its uncertainties. Many employers already have uncertainty about their existing workforce.”

It is telling both of the reality of the concerns of smaller employers and of the power of macro employers to bring an influence to bear on employment demographics that Sellafield’s percentage retention of apprenticeships for full employment is an impressive 98% compared to a national average in the region of 70%.

Sellafield is trying to tackle concerns within its supplier base through the activities of a community apprenticeship programme and in 2010 a nationwide pilot scheme for Apprenticeship Training Associations provided the chance for groups of employers to gather together and share the cost of supporting an apprentice within their business, an initiative which also broadens the work experience and diversity of business knowledge for the individual undertaking the qualification.

A prime example of this kind of shared provision is provided by the Work-wise programme, coordinated by Business & Education South Yorkshire (b&e) and supported by participating companies including; Sheffield Forgemasters, Firth Rixon and DavyMarkham. The benefits being gained by apprentices and employers participating in the Work-wise scheme were recently show-cased at the London launch of the Global Manufacturing Festival 2011 where apprentices trained through the scheme spoke for themselves about the opportunities that had been opened up to them and clearly demonstrated their ambitions to excel in their professional capacities. Hearing these young people speak it is hard to credit arguments that youth unemployment is a consequence of lack of interest in the future on the part of British youth today. But what is view from contemporaries of Britain’s 1 million unemployed youth?

Louis Warburton, junior resident engineer at automotive manufacturer, Bentley recently qualified as a level 3 apprentice and is now taking his professional development further with a foundation degree in mechanical engineering. A keenly ambitious individual, Louis responded to questions on his career plans with the assertion that he would one day be CEO of Bentley, the company to which he is now fully committed.

On the subject of young people’s attitude towards qualifications and careers Louis commented “My school days are a few years back now. Hopefully things are starting to change but for me the message from teachers was always to get your A levels and go to university. It was drummed into you and you never really considered the alternatives or the reasons you were going in terms of what job you would get at the end.”

As far as more practical career routes were concerned Lois remembers the Army being highlighted, “but apprenticeships were never really spoken about but when they were there was a stigma attached to them. There is a perception that being an apprentice will just involve being the brew boy and there is little recognition of the valuable skills you can gain that cannot be gained at university and will not land you with massive student debts.”

There is certainly no straightforward answer to solving the increasing unemployment problem facing the UK. However, the capacity to improve awareness about the importance of career decisions earlier on in young people’s education and to provide them with the means of becoming qualified while in the workplace seems staggering.

Allaying employer fears about long term commitments to wage provision must be a priority if the potential of apprenteships to stabilise UK employment is to be taken advantage of. Developing support networks as well as hard data on the likelihood of business growth through apprenticeship provision will be challenging but this chance to nurture a generation of business savvy, skilled individuals who can anchor the future economy should not be missed.