Tougher apprenticeships will signal an end for Britain’s ‘conveyor belt’ of skills
The increase in the number of apprenticeship starts has been significant in recent years, and is welcome news for UK industry. In an era where young people face an uncertain future, it is fantastic that opportunities are available to them. There were 325,500 new apprenticeship starts in 2010/11, an increase of 246,700 since 2006/7. Even better, almost 9 out of 10 apprentices (89%) are satisfied in their roles.
However, just increasing the number of apprenticeships being delivered won’t, on its own, produce the skills for growth that Britain needs. The real focus must be on ensuring that real quality permeates the apprenticeships that ready workers for their future careers. Indeed, this view has been endorsed recently by Skills Minister John Hayes, who recently announced that all apprenticeship schemes are to be lengthened to a minimum of 12 months.
In recent years, a ‘conveyer belt’ approach to vocational training has crept up, where the quantity of apprenticeships has taken precedence over the quality of the courses. Some industries have been damaging the apprenticeship brand by focusing too much on volume and speed rather than the end product. So, as the number of apprentices rises, it is crucial we ensure they are being trained to the highest standard.
In the case of the construction industry, we face the problem of an ageing workforce, with a significant number due to retire in the next 10 years. These retirees will be highly skilled, highly experienced workers, and their replacements will have to be trained accordingly. We will need a raft of new skills to deal with emerging industries, such as the nuclear build, green energies and Building Information Modelling. Thanks to Government investment there are also a number of major infrastructure projects in the pipeline, such as High Speed 2 and Crossrail. To meet future skills demands, a highly skilled future workforce is simply a must.
Construction can already boast that most of its apprenticeships are high quality and thorough with level 2 apprenticeship in construction lasting 24 months, and a level 3 apprenticeship lasting 36 months. However, despite the many good quality schemes on offer, we have recently seen an increase in the number of providers who have tried to fast track candidates, badging short-term duration courses as apprenticeships.
Short-term courses in their own right are a great way to up-skill and continue on the professional development path. However, some apprenticeships are simply too short, preventing those taking them from developing their skills to their full potential. This is potentially harmful to both the apprentices that complete them, and the employers that take them on. It also has a negative impact on British industry – apprenticeships are crucial to the UK industry in delivering the right skills for growth, so it is self-defeating to support courses that are unfit for purpose, as it damages Britain’s ability to compete on a global scale in the long-term.
As a result, we need to ensure we are safeguarding the skills needs of British industry for when the market picks up. We should be continuing to raise standards of apprenticeships, with training infrastructure largely shaped by employers to help produce high-quality results.
This is why we have rejected claims for qualifications for courses as short as 18 months, and for framework completions for level 2 apprenticeships achieved between 12 and 17 months. We don’t believe short apprenticeships will support British industry’s needs now or in the future. What we will continue to support and provide are robust and fit-for-purpose apprenticeships that really do deliver. We urge other industries to take the same approach to safeguard growth in the future, and ensure we have the best training available.
Apprenticeships are crucial to producing the workers of the future for all UK industries. The recent commitment from the Government will go some way towards ensuring the apprenticeship system is working for British industry. What we must always remember, however, is that it is the quality of our future workforce, not the quantity, that will drive growth.
Mark Farrar is Chief Executive of CITB-ConstructionSkills.
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