Sugar vs English debacle mocks the apprenticeship

Posted on 7 Mar 2013

Sugar vs. English employment tribunal makes a mockery of apprenticeships and has devalued their meaning.

The Stella English / Lord Sugar spat really devalues an apprenticeship

Like many people, I care little about the outcome of the employment tribunal being fought between Lord Sugar and Stella English.

Ms English, who won series six of the BBC1 show fronted by the celebrity peer in 2010, is suing him for constructive dismissal. She won the £100k job and expected a position in Lord Sugar’s organisation commensurate with the pay.

Central to her claim is that Lord Sugar advised her in September 2011 he would not be renewing her contract and that he did not “give a s***”. She claims she was little more than an “overpaid lackey”, tasked with menial tasksjobs, he claims that she didn’t like the reality of real work when the cameras stopped rolling.

Whatever the truth, one thing is certain. You should never fire an apprentice.

This successful BBC series has thrived on the simple headline that evokes the ideal of a young, perhaps naive, junior employee, learning the tricks of the trade on a fast-track curve and, via a fierce selection process, being chosen as the outstanding candidate to join a revered organisation.

What has been less clear to my small brain is whether the apprenticeship that these charming people undertake on The Apprentice is the humiliating selection process itself, or whether the job you win at the end of the torture is the start of the actual “apprenticeship”.

Assuming the latter (and really, in Lord Sugar’s words, who gives a s***?), Ms English won her apprenticeship at Sugar Corp on merit, fair and square, and would rightly expect a minimum level of training, due process and stewardship from the company. That is, after all, what a real apprentice would receive in the real world, isn’t it?

Instead she got a pretty unsatisfactory experience, which failed to test her mental faculties and fulfil her expectations.

Even were Lord Sugar partly right, that such expectations were unrealistically lofty and she found ‘real work’ a little unpalatable, I strongly suspect that what Sugar’s company offered her was not what most engineers, manufacturers and astute businessmen would think constitutes a true apprenticeship.

The whole sorry affair, and the programme, as entertaining as it may be, erodes the value of an apprenticeship. At a time when large numbers of politicians, and manufacturing and business stakeholders are busy promoting the virtues of apprenticeships, the type of job this show leads to is not, on the evidence presented, a good representation.

Yes, immensely tongue-in-cheek The Apprentice may be. But I suspect if you’re reading this, you are not an impressionable 15 or 16-year old reviewing his/her career options.

During a real apprenticeship the employer looks after their charge, mentors them and develops them to reflect what they are – an asset to the business. An apprentice is never fired, unless guilty of gross misconduct – why would you spoil your investment?

In Germany, and increasingly here, with the launch of the Commercial Engineering Apprenticeship (introduced by the MTA and the AMRC with Boeing) following completion of an apprenticeship the employee’s education continues. They are introduced to technical sales training, languages and visit all the company’s divisions to get a full scope of the business.

A true apprenticeship has measurable value. In many industries, it is and should be, a minimum of three years training, with college study. In Germany, it gives a person real status – and is the foundation for many senior careers, not just in engineering but in finance, retail and construction.

In Germany there is one apprenticeship grade, a minimum national standard compiled along the three, or four, year course applied to different professions. There are not myriad flavours and levels of apprenticeship – in the same way you would not have several flavours of medical doctor at graduation.

Here, they would never call such a show The Apprentice, because the double-meaning would not translate (cue emails to prove me wrong).

Lord Sugar selected Ms English on merit and a ‘real’ apprenticeship would have crafted her talents to add value to his business and to her own career.

The BBC should stop calling this show The Apprentice to avoid further erosion of a good name that needs more responsible PR; may I suggest The Circus as an apt alternative?