Apprenticeships: hats off to the stubborn geeks

What a mess we’ve made of apprenticeships. The Select Committee on Business, Industry and Skills  found that a sizeable minority of apprentices receive no training whatsoever; the system is riddled with conflicts of interest, often unreported and largely unresolved; profit levels appear to be inflated by government grants; some employers simply badge existing training as an apprenticeship in order to claim funding; the system involves de facto age discrimination, with no apparent rationale, as well as gender discrimination in some trades. Worse, the uneven quality of training has damaged public perceptions of apprenticeship schemes in general.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the online debate over the last two year. But it should do. If you relied on mainstream press and broadcasting media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that apprenticeships were something from the past, inherited from the medieval craft guilds, and unsuited to a dynamic modern economy.

And it is true that the apprenticeship system that operated until the 1980s was flawed. Lads followed dads, excluding many women and immigrants; whether a particular craft was included or not was often a matter of historical accident (and workforce gendering); and craft status often became a pawn in collective bargaining, bedding rigidities into a system that should indeed have been modernised as industry and skills requirements changed.

But instead of modernising apprenticeships, the Thatcher government chose to smash them. In place of backward-looking, time-served, tripartite apprenticeships it promoted the go-ahead standards-based competency model of the National Vocational Qualifications system. Apprenticeship systems survived in small pockets, but for the most part they vanished as employers took advantage of the economic and policy climate to replace them with short, cheap training schemes.

By contrast, a number of other European countries opted to try and modernise their apprenticeship systems. They retained the principle of social partnership, seeking to work out the problems of modernisation through consultation and negotiation. And they tried to introduce new forms of apprenticeship to match the new, flexible forms of work practices that were required for European industry to survive.

The result was by no means perfect. Gender segregation often survived, with young women dominating apprenticeships in traditional female areas and males dominating in engineering and IT. Flexibility was sometimes insufficiently developed, as shown most notably in Germany’s attempt to impose a (western) model of apprenticeship on the very different labour market of the former East Germany. It is still far too difficult for adults to upskill or reskill through modified apprenticeship schemes.

But these were and are seen as reasons for reforming a high quality pathway to highly skilled labour. Hilary Steedman’s report for the International Labour Organisation identifies a number of features of successful apprenticeship schemes that, she shows, have helped reduce youth unemployment and maintain labour quality.

But what interests me particularly is that none of this is new. Campaigners and researchers have blogged repeatedly on the topic, and there has been sustained coverage in the redoubtable FE Week, a small, new, specialist magazine. Academics like Lorna Unwin and Alison Fuller have written and spoken about the policy flaws. Think tanks and the National Audit Office got involved. And while trade unions have generally been quiet, individuals like Tom Wilson of UnionLearn have raised tough questions about the treatment of this particularly vulnerable group of workers.

Yet the mainstream press has had little to say about what appears to be another sorry chapter in the long story of Britain’s problem with vocational skills. Hats off, then, to the handful of stubborn geeky buggers who have worked hard to raise concern over what is obviously an important issue, but not sexy, fashionable or high status enough.

Now we move on to the much tougher task of building an apprenticeship system that is fit for purpose. The Select Committee’s recommendations cover eight pages. So far the Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock, has issued a bland statement affirming the value of apprenticeships and promising to look at improvements. FE Week will no doubt be watching.

Hilary Steedman’s report for the ILO is at:—ed_emp/—ifp_skills/documents/genericdocument/wcms_190188.pdf

The Select Committee’s report is at:

2 thoughts on “Apprenticeships: hats off to the stubborn geeks

  1. John, we had an event at the MOD to launch the Armed Forces Longitudinal Study on the impact of basic skills on Service personnel ability to do their job. As you know 90+% of Army recruits are on an Apprenticeship. Minister Hancock was at the event and took the time to meet with Apprentices and find out what they thought about the quality of their experience, overwhelmingly positive of course because all learning is embedded in work related skills and a culture of ‘you will succeed’.

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