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BT says it should skill up whole telecoms sector

With apprenticeship scheme more competitive than Oxbridge entry, it pledges major shift in attitude to training needs

With apprenticeship scheme more competitive than Oxbridge entry, it pledges major shift in attitude to training needs

BT, one of the country's largest apprenticeship employers, has said it wants to help train its entire industry to help meet unprecedented demand for training places.

Andy Palmer, head of skills at the telecoms company, said it had received 26,000 applications for its 236 apprentice places - making the programme more competitive than Oxford or Cambridge universities.

The company has already suggested expanding the programme to support its pound;2.5 billion roll-out of fibre broadband. But Mr Palmer proposed that they go further in order to improve the chances of success for applicants to something nearer the one-in-six chance enjoyed by a would-be Oxbridge entrant.

He said BT should take on many more apprentices than it needs and then make them available to other employers in their industry and their suppliers.

Mr Palmer, who was speaking at a skills debate marking the countdown to the WorldSkills 2010 competition in London next year, said: "It's a real challenge for us to provide enough places for young people. What I would suggest is that we need to change our view on recruiting apprentices.

"At the moment, we think, what is the business need in three years' time? We need to think, what does the sector need? We should take on more than we need, then make the others available to similar companies in our supply chain.

"It would require a systematic change, and at the moment it's very difficult for us to do that.

"But it's not enough for us to sit on the sidelines and swipe at the education system. We need to be a part of it, to help deliver the curriculum so that when they come out of education students are prepared for employment."

Among the barriers preventing employers such as BT from training on behalf of their industry as a whole is that while apprenticeships for under-19s are fully funded, businesses must pay a minimum wage of pound;2.50 an hour. While companies may be willing to take on responsibility for training, they are unlikely to want to pay for trainees they do not need.

But the proposal is one of several innovative ideas aimed at increasing apprenticeship numbers, despite economic conditions that discourage employers from taking on new staff.

Transport for London is among the public sector bodies requiring its suppliers to have a minimum number of apprentices in order to win its business.

Group training associations, where small companies share apprentices if they do not have a post available, are also being supplemented by college- run training schemes where the college sets up its own commercial arm to act as the apprentices' employer. Barnfield College, where students work on renovating houses for a college-run property business, and Reading College are among those to adopt this approach.

BT's signal of its willingness to provide more apprenticeships than its business needs is likely to be welcomed by unions, which have criticised the contribution of large employers to increasing the number of apprenticeships available.

While companies with 500 or more employees provide 16 per cent of the total employment in the UK, they only offer 5 per cent of the apprenticeship places, according to the TUC.

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