Hayes for skills heyday

Posted on 27 Jan 2011 by The Manufacturer

Skills Minister, John Hayes, talks to TM about his vision for real skills in a real economy.

Following discussion at EEF’s launch of the Global Manufacturing Festival 2011 (January 18) over industry skills challenges and the maintenance of apprenticeship standards government released their new Specification of Apprenticeship Standards for England (SASE). This new specification attempted to bring consistency to apprenticeship delivery and enshrine apprenticeship values in a framework which would give confidence to employers, educators and potential apprenticeships themselves in the value and credibility of apprentice qualifications.

In the wake of this release however, leading figures from the skills industry have voiced concerns as to what SASE shows about how deeply government really understands the challenges of building an effective and robust framework to support skills development. No one is questioning whether the boosting of apprenticeships is a good thing, but are the issues around the image of vocational skills, the level of commitment needed by small employers in taking on apprentices and the need to create growth that will allow those companies to offer full employment to trainees on qualification fully appreciated. Below John Hayes responds to questions from TM to clarify his view of what motivates government skills strategy:

TM: “Do you believe that a problem of perception exists among employers, parents and learners about the value of apprenticeships in comparison to ‘academic’ qualifications?”

Hayes: “Skills change lives by changing life chances. Practical skills and work-based learning have too often been undervalued in the past. The Government, and myself personally, are determined to changing this attitude by elevating the status of practical learning and celebrating the personal fulfilment and economic value that craft brings to our society.

Apprenticeships, in particular, provide an important vocational route for young people to progress in the workplace – they change lives by extending life chances. That’s why I’ve put expanding the number of apprenticeships central to our reform of the skills system.

We’ll do more to recognise the achievements of those that complete apprenticeships. I want to introduce a more formal graduation process that will help give apprentices a feeling of community and achievement and ensure their recognition is more on a par with that afforded to university graduates. In our Skills Strategy, we have committed to work with the National Apprenticeship Service to introduce graduation ceremonies, an apprentice Roll of Honour and new alumni networks. We will also consider how apprenticeship training can be recognised as conferring coveted “technician” status in appropriate sectors.”

TM: Do projections for industry growth match aspirations for increased apprenticeship uptake? Is there a danger that by incentivising more employers to offer an increased number of apprenticeships we risk creating a disappointed cadre of qualified individuals whose companies cannot afford to expand their wage commitments to offer them full employment in the long term?

Hayes: “The entire focus of our Skills Strategy is in building a training system that is employer led. Under this government every apprenticeship is a real job, and the training that takes place as part of that apprenticeship is a direct response to a real skills need. Indeed helping meet those skills needs, in businesses across the country, will make a major contribution to economic growth.

On funding, we have made a major commitment, reflecting the potential for the apprenticeships programme to help drive economic growth. As soon as we came to office, we announced 50,000 additional adult places for the 2010-11 financial year. The budget for Apprenticeships will increase to over £1,400 million in the 2011-12 financial year: £799m for 16-18 year olds; £605m for those aged 19 and over. This means we will have funding in place to help train over 300,000 apprentices, all of whom will learn on the job as well receiving subsidised formal training, in 2011/12.”

TM: Does government have advice for employers who may be confused about how to focus their skills investment? In the light of the forthcoming abolition of the DRA it is likely that the need to up skill existing workers will increase as well as the imperative to prepare a new generation with skills for the future of the industry.

Hayes: “Employers are best placed to decide what their own skills priorities are, and government should not be telling them what to do. The job of government is to provide support where it is most needed to help them meet those skills priorities. That is why, under our plans, we are providing more apprenticeships, giving further education colleges more freedom to run courses that help meet the needs of local people and local businesses, and ensuring that the training we help fund is employer led, with a strong emphasis on vocational skills gained in the workplace.

I was recently involved in the launch of IBM’s first Apprenticeship scheme, which is aimed at school leavers. Typically, IBM have previously focused on the recruitment of graduates, but have now realised that, because of business demands, they also need to bring in and nurture younger talent as well.”

Do Mr Hayes views show that government is in tune with what industry needs from a national skills strategy? Ann Watson, managing director of specialist awarding organisation EAL, would like to be optimistic but has her doubts: “On the surface of the issue, the Government is appearing to boost the skills sector, but scratch a bit deeper and it is offering are vague promises of putting unemployed people on training courses.

“While this may go some way to counteract the unemployment crisis, this not going to boost our economy in the long term. Instead, or perhaps in addition, the Government should be supporting businesses in the skilled industries to enable them to take on and train apprentices.”

Watson continued: “While reducing the unemployment statistic is crucial, it’s not just a numbers game. We need to ensure the unemployed are directed to the skills sectors to see us out of the recession. Britain used to be the industrial capital of the world and its industries like engineering and manufacturing that have played a vital role in helping our economy to recover and they have only been kept strong because of their commitment to developing the next generation.

“We need to see a concrete commitment and coherent strategy from the Government not vague sound bites about the importance of skills. Yes, skills have a huge role to play in economic recovery, but it’s about quality skills for industries that will drive the UK forward.”