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'Apprenticeships; let's think about the bigger picture'

Chris Jones, chief executive of the City & Guilds Group, writes:

Has there ever been a better time for a would-be apprentice? Politicians of all parties are practically falling over themselves to offer more opportunities for on-the-job training.

We’ll fund ‘three million more chances for a better life’ in the form of new apprenticeships, George Osborne told the Conservative Conference last week. Ed Miliband spoke about his dream of seeing as many people in an apprenticeship as at university by 2025. And for the Lib Dems, Vince Cable expressed support for a single national minimum wage applying to 16 to 17-year-olds in work and apprenticeships in their first year. Ultimately, the message from Party Conference season 2014 is that expanding apprenticeship opportunities is a top priority for all parties.

It’s headline-grabbing stuff, this apprenticeship one-upmanship. And as someone who often talks about the need for politicians to wake up to the benefits of vocational education, you’d think I would be applauding.

But let’s not get too excited. The discussion around apprenticeship pay is another column in its own right. But when it comes to the emphasis on numbers, I’m not sending George and Ed thank you cards just yet. It’s not yet clear whether these expansions really will benefit individuals, employers and the country as a whole. Because reforming our educational system so that it works for all those groups is about more than numbers – as Germany proves.

We often talk about the German system as a benchmark for vocational excellence, and this is not without reason. The Germans outscore us in international rankings such as the OECD, while in a comparative study earlier this year McKinsey commended them for having ‘well-developed vocational training systems’ thanks to the dual system where ‘the academic and vocational tracks run parallel to each other.’

So far, so good. But a recent report in the Financial Times highlighted the fact that German employers are increasingly looking to its ‘working pensioners’ because not enough skilled workers are coming up the pipeline. Why? Too many young people are choosing university instead of learning on the job to gain the skills German industries need.

This is a situation we’re all too familiar with in this country. We often hear about industry skills gaps, or insufficient careers advice guiding young people down the university route even if it isn’t right for them. And last year saw 10,000 fewer apprenticeship starts than the previous one.

So, if the future Government – whichever Party forms it – wants to invest in apprenticeships, is creating more places really the right approach?

Rather than focusing on numbers, we need policy-makers to come up with something that is tailored to our specific needs. If what’s going on in Germany tells us anything, it’s that there is no such thing as a perfect model for vocational education – it needs to be determined by societal trends.

It’s no use expanding the number of apprenticeships if we overlook other factors. We need to address the current failings in careers advice. We need to make sure that all apprenticeships provide a high-quality learning experience that sets people on the path to success, rather than being seen as a way of keeping the unemployment figures down.

Likewise, there’s no point in offering more apprenticeships if they don’t meet the needs of employers, or help to fill the skills shortages we currently see in sectors like construction or energy. If we expand the number of apprenticeships, we need to make sure we have a long-term strategy in place that’s stable and durable.

Apprenticeships and vocational education have undergone significant change over the past few decades. Instead of seeing further changes to the system, we need to build on the strong foundations we have in place so that apprenticeships are benefiting the wider economy.

I’m delighted that apprenticeships have featured at both Party Conferences this year. It suggests tackling skills gaps and youth unemployment will be an election priority.

But it’ll never be as simple as we’d hope. Thirty years of turmoil in skills policy have made that abundantly clear. Apprenticeships absolutely must be part of the solution, but they have to be the right apprenticeships – well-planned, targeted, and high-quality.

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