Why we must invest in apprenticeships


Last week (3-7 March) was National Apprenticeship Week, which was set up by Labour in government to promote and celebrate apprenticeships and the contribution they make. It seems fitting then, for me to discuss why I support the British Chamber of Commerce's proposals for the Chancellor to focus his forthcoming budget on increasing the skills, training and capacity of young people. In particular, I believe the Chancellor should use his budget to invest in apprenticeships. It is no surprise that apprenticeships have received a great deal of attention over the last few years, with youth unemployment remaining so high; currently, over a million young people are not in education, employment or training. Apprenticeships offer a strong alternative to a university education, that give young people practical experience and skills that pave the way to their chosen career. Employers are able to benefit from the passion that young apprentices bring, along with a fresh outlook and high levels of energy. Young people want to work. We know this, but the truth is that there is still a lot more to do to invest in their future. The number of new apprenticeship starts has fallen by over 25,000 in the last year. In addition, there are now over 5,000 fewer under 19s starting an apprenticeship than in 2009-10. Supply of apprenticeship opportunities is not keeping up with rising demand, with many young people missing out as a result. Added to this are concerns that a high number of apprentices are not receiving their legal minimum wage: a recent survey published by the government showed that 29% of apprentices aren't getting paid enough.

To me, this suggests a culture where apprenticeships, though currently much talked about as the answer to youth unemployment, are not being taken seriously enough by this government as a credible alternative for our young people and for our businesses. There are many ways we can improve the provision, a good start would be for us to enshrine in law the principle that when the public sector procures services, we build into the contract that the company providing those services must provide a certain quota of apprenticeships. This approach has been supported by the cross-party BIS Select Committee and could create thousands of new apprenticeship opportunities. Labour has also announced plans to create higher quality apprenticeships, with proposals that under Labour, all apprenticeships would be at level 3 and would have to last a minimum of two years.

There is plenty of work to do to improve the playing field for apprenticeships. Despite more places being created every year, the level of apprenticeship applications outstrips the number of available places by around 12 to 1. Nationally, think tanks have reported that England currently only has 11 apprentices in place for every 1,000 jobs. Now is the time for us to turn the tables, to invest in young people by creating more apprenticeships, of a greater quality. If we want an economic recovery for the long term, we must invest in young people, as young people are our future business leaders, our future engineers, and our future scientists.

If we don't act today, we risk creating a generational skills gap that lasts into tomorrow. I am backing the British Chamber of Commerce's campaign that the Chancellor use his budget to invest in skills and training for young people, because our society needs strong and skilled young people that will serve Britain not just for now, but for the future.

NewsVanessa Johns