Employers welcome the Modern Apprentices

Think of the succession of training schemes for young people, none of which captured the public imagination and most of which turned off the young people they were trying to inspire. Then think of Modern Apprenticeships, a runaway success, spectacularly popular with young people who want to learn a "trade" or business. Employers love them too, because they get the right people with, as they constantly say, "the right attitude".

More than 100,000 people have signed up for a Modern Apprenticeship since they were introduced in prototype form in September, 1994. The number of young people on MAs in June was 83,800, nearly two-and-a-half times as many as at the same time last year.

All apprentices work towards Level 3 (A-level equivalent) in the National Vocational Qualifications framework, in other words, towards developing technician, craft and supervisory skills. The programmes have largely been developed by Industry Training Organisations for their respective sectors, and they have incorporated job-specific skills, key skill development and broad occupational knowledge in the frameworks.

Modern Apprenticeships appeal to youngsters and employers alike, said David Wilkinson, chief executive of Bradford and District Training and Enterprise Council. "The old craft indentures were very difficult for all sides. It was a very formal, very long process whereas with the MA there is no indenture. There is equal commitment but the formality is far less. There are modern teaching methods and modules as opposed to a more rigid structure.

"Industry contributes significantly in terms of the training effort it invests. It is important that we do not abandon young people just as they leave the education system."

MAs have spread dramatically. They are available in 57 industry sectors, and a further 15 are under development. The most popular sectors are engineering, manufacturing and business administration. Then comes the motor industry, retailing, construction, hairdressing, hotel and catering,electrical installation, health and social care, and child care.

Research commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment surveyed both employers and young people for their views on MAs. They found that they offered employees a skills base that would allow them to transfer between employers and industries if need be. For the employer, the training had to be relevant to their needs, and provide an adequate return on their investment in training.

"Modern Apprentice ship, and its partial funding by government, offers a means of reconciling these potentially divergent needs in a manner which optimises both the quality and quantity of intermediate skills supply for the economy as a whole," said the study.

In the vast majority of establishments, the MAs had employee status. The qualities employers sought in recruits to their programmes were enthusiasm,the "right attitude" and common sense. This was not always translated into specific entry qualifications. Where these were required, 3-4 GCSEs at grades A to C was the most typical request. In fact, slightly less than half of all apprentices gained five or more A-C grades at GCSE.

The research found that some companies which had not previously undertaken training did so once MAs were developed. Many found that MAs were both more relevant to their company, and provided more flexible training.

The survey of young people compared apprentices with those who followed an academic (GCE A-level) or a broad vocational (Advanced GNVQ) pathway. The apprentices rated themselves more highly in terms of awareness of "vocational" - as distinct from "academic" - options when they were at school. Many already had a "personal vocational direction combined with a sense of occupational context".

They saw MAs as good for learning real skills in the workplace, career prospects and good quality training. They felt they would lead to better job opportunities and more pay. More than half of the comparison group, when asked to define an MA, could not.

This week some 325 young people will start a Modern Apprenticeship scheme at Vauxhall Motors. More than 2,400 people applied for places, and demand is so great that the company aims to expand the annual intake to around 1,000.

The young people will spend eight weeks a year on intensive residential courses during the three-year programme. The courses will be based at six regional training centres, including one in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland.

"We are looking for individuals keen to make a contributi on, who have the right attitude, who want to do a good job, " said Roger Woolnough, manager of the Vauxhall College, at Luton. "Working in a workshop, to use an old term, is completely different from what it was 20 years ago. The equipment is so much more advanced. Some of our floors are as spotless as people's bathrooms. What we are talking about is diagnostic equipment linked to computerisation, which appeals to young people more than a spanner.

"People leaving school - who see that the job situation is not as good as it could be - see this as an opportunity. People have a nice warm feeling about it. It is aimed at the right level. People at school who are average to good will think they have a fair chance of getting in.

"Modern Apprenticeships have an advantage over other schemes because they are firmly fixed on school-leavers, provide on-the-job training and young people say, 'I could do that'."

A runaway success they may be, but problems remain. The Further Education Development Agency (FEDA), welcomed the programmes in a new paper but recognised some problems, including poaching - the organisation which the apprentice is registered with when completing the NVQ is the one that receives the funding.

Some training providers have offered inducements to employers or employees, FEDA found, to transfer before they completed their portfolios: "In one college, the apprentices were offering themselves to other employers, who could then claim the funding for their achievement of an NVQ level 3."

Terry Melia, chairman of FEDA, said: "This is unacceptable. We have to stop it. When I read this in the report I could not believe it. If it means that an organisation can pick someone up just before they qualify (and claim for them) then this is a scam. I do not think it is widespread, but it must be stopped."

Overall, he is impressed by their success. "Employers were involved in the design of courses, and they know what they want. Companies are training these people and they get real jobs." Mr Melia has been invited to Russia to advise them on how to establish a similar system for their young people.

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