Apprenticeships are, unsurprisingly, high on the agenda with just a few weeks to go until the General Election.
As a campaigning tool, they have both economic and social relevance – so the major parties are clamouring over each other to show they have the best apprenticeship policies in place.
What do these pledges mean for those of us who are actually employing and training apprentices?
Who’s promising what?
The Conservatives have vowed to create an extra three million ‘training places’ over the next parliament if they remain in power after May 7.
Crucially, they want to place apprenticeships on a par with degrees, which should help to alleviate some of the criticism thrown at them by the Labour Party who claim training programmes are not currently of a high enough standard.
Labour has also pledged to create more apprenticeships (although a significant proportion of those new positions will be tied to the HS2 project).
Miliband is aiming to tackle the education and quality gap by only making apprenticeships available to school leavers with A Level equivalent qualifications. Part of its £50 million scheme will also see young people receive advice in school about apprenticeships and their merits versus university or unskilled jobs.
Nick Clegg has taken practically every opportunity he has had over the past few weeks to talk about apprenticeships. One of his key goals is to end the ‘barely concealed snobbery’ surrounding apprenticeships, which he claims comes from adults rather than the young people themselves.
The Liberal Democrats are taking much of the credit for the two million apprenticeships made available under the current coalition, and want to double that figure over the next five years.
Politically neutral but a benefit to all
Rather than aiming for one-upmanship, an all-party policy on the framework for apprenticeships would probably be the best outcome for businesses. National Apprenticeship Week, which took place in March 2015, saw a raft of companies hailing the benefits they have seen from hiring apprentices.
But it also highlighted some of the issues faced by employers – namely around promoting the idea of apprenticeships as a viable career choice, finding the right candidates and accessing government funding.
Getting the right people to choose an apprenticeship
Labour’s plans to raise educational standards in schools and to talk to young people about their options should help, but the off-site training provided during apprenticeships also needs to be of the highest quality.
In our own business, we have an apprentice who is working towards a three year qualification in electrical maintenance.
Our aim is to encourage and develop his skills through a dual approach of day to day learning on the job about maintenance tasks, alongside his one day per week college training.
Our apprentice fully understands and appreciates what this opportunity can provide in terms of future financial rewards and job security.
At the end of the apprenticeship he will be in a strong position having gained recognised industry qualifications, practical experience, transferable skills such as IT and communications, as well as the ability to work as part of a team.
Young people need to be told in school that this is a fantastic career choice, and not just second best if they don’t make the grades.
Making it easier for companies to hire apprentices
The main driver for us in hiring apprentices is to increase our skills base and to sustain the business. But apprenticeships are also a great way to develop individuals and provide the best possible start to a career in manufacturing.
With the introduction of robotics and automation into our business, we are also giving young people the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technologies.
We now need the government to make the recruitment and training process as easy as possible. The Digital Apprenticeship Voucher scheme is a step in the right direction. Not only will it give employers more purchase power when looking for the best quality training providers, but it also eliminates some of the lengthy administration involved in recouping training costs.
Most people in my industry are pro-apprenticeships but some are put off by government red-tape that can make the process look too complex to undertake when they’re busy trying to run their businesses. This is particularly true for SMEs.
Whichever party is in Downing Street come May 8, the government must work in partnership with industry to ensure that apprenticeship schemes aren’t about point scoring or making unemployment figures look better, but are really benefitting young people, businesses and the economy.