Gordon Brown's apprenticeship drive appeared to be the shot in the arm needed to help seal the skills gap but is the continuing economic downturn, looming redundancies and mountains of red tape jeopardising the government's apprentice dream? Verity Gough investigates.
Whether it's the latest national academy opening or impressive statistics indicating that the government is 'on target', modern apprenticeships are being touted as a cure-all when it comes to plugging the skills gap.
Apprenticeships are nothing new. Private organisations have been successfully running schemes for years and big firms like BT, British Energy and Network Rail have provided the blue-print for the government's vision of seeing all young people that qualify being offered a tailored apprentice scheme by 2013. And there are scores of success stories out there including the recent campaign, headed by the TUC, which saw an increase of the minimum weekly pay for apprentices from £80 to £95.
Andrew Cave, FSB
Yet, despite the positives, the figures just aren't stacking up. A report from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) revealed that while apprenticeship places have more than doubled in the past decade, still only one in 20 employers offer such a scheme. So where did it start to go pear-shaped?
According to Fiona Murray, policy advisor at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), unrealistic targets, red tape, additional costs and a worrying number of young people failing to meet the basic levels of education required by employers are marring apprenticeship schemes for many businesses. "Some of our members' apprentice completion rates would be quite high but they're significantly lower simply because the apprentices haven't been able to complete the key skills section of a programme," she says.
This is echoed by Andrew Cave of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), whose members have also had a mixed reaction to the government's push for apprenticeship schemes. "Over 40% of small businesses want to increase employees but they do have problems finding people with the right skills," he says.
He believes the problem lies in the emphasis being placed on basic training rather than the acquisition of basic skills: "Apprentices should already have basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, but many don't," he says.
Fiona Murray, CBI
The education issue aside, one of the biggest obstacles to employer engagement is the bureaucracy involved in the current application process. Business owners are swamped with paperwork; from monitoring of quality assurance in order to access public funding to the retention of data for each individual apprentice, which needs to be stored for a minimum of six years – a cost not covered by the funding.
"Any such cost burden on an employer in an apprentice programme will discourage them from taking on an apprentice," Murray adds. "Those costs have to be shared in some way and it's essential that we don't set up a whole series of barriers that will make it much more likely that they will be discouraged from participating."
Similarly, Cave has also found that there is a mismatch in the training available and the practical skills businesses require. "There is a need for small businesses to have a closer link with academic establishments to make sure their needs are reflected by the local training available to them," he explains.
Murray agrees: "Training providers need to put businesses centre stage when thinking about how to make it easier for an employer to get involved," she says. "This includes the Time Off for Training initiative, which should be done at a moment that is suitable for that particular business."
In an attempt to redress the balance, the government has set up a number of initiatives which aim to bridge the gap between the official bodies responsible for the national schemes, the education establishments and the businesses themselves.
Only last week, consultations closed for the draft Apprenticeship Bill. The soon-to-be-launched National Apprenticeship Scheme (NAS) is also promising to boost the flagging numbers of organisations offering programmes, particularly in the capital where there are currently fewer apprenticeship opportunities per head than in almost any other part of England.
Mark Farrar, ConstructionSkills
This is one initiative the CBI welcomes: "The NAS is supposed to be dedicated to apprenticeships to help improve the red tape. That would be something we would like to see it focus on when it starts becoming operational next year," says Murray.
So what about those business sectors such as construction, manufacturing, engineering and catering that have traditionally enjoyed a healthy apprenticeship offering? Despite the uncertainty of the current economic climate, Mark Farrar, chief executive of ConstructionSkills, stresses that the long-term trend is for rising levels of construction activity and, therefore, believes the industry should continue to train ahead of the recovery.
To that end, ConstructionSkills has partnered with the government to create a rapid response service, which aims to find new employer places for those apprentices facing redundancy as well as ensure there are enough new apprentices in the system to deliver the government's ambitious future house building plans.
"Skills will be in great demand in years to come," says Farrar, "In some cases, they will need updating as the nature of the industry changes through innovation and technological change. Apprenticeship training will be the key to meeting these demands."
If we are to avoid a repeat of the ill-fated YTS programmes of the 1980s, apprenticeships need to be both rigorous and high quality. Yet, it appears that the biggest fly in the ointment is not the businesses or the training providers but the government's love of targets. "The government is over-obsessed with targets when we need to see apprenticeships completed," says Cave. "Too many people drop out at the moment for various reasons and we'd like to see the government focus a lot more on getting it right – getting the support there so that apprenticeships go through to natural conclusions."
Murray backs this up: "Targets exist but they should be on quality," she says. "We want to raise the number of high quality apprenticeship schemes, see the careers advice clause in the Apprenticeship Bill tightened and an end to rigid standards or agreements."
Future success appears to lie in taking the long-term view, not just panicking about the economic downturn. The good news is the government appears to be listening and reacting to employers' concerns. With more flexibility for employers coupled with improved communication between all active partners, there may well yet be a happy ending for the apprenticeship story.