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Master of modern apprentices

In the days when Britain was the workshop of the world, the way ahead for a working-class youngster seeking a secure future was to become an apprentice. It took five years but, at the end of it, the young man - they were usually men - could hold up his head as a master craftsman in his chosen trade.

John Ettridge, 37, industrial liaison manager at Woolwich College in south-east London, became an apprentice welder at the age of 16.

"My father did an apprenticeship in engineering and his father did one at the Water Board," he says. "I liked metalwork and engines so it just seemed a natural progression for me to leave school and become an apprentice.

"You spent the first year sweeping the floor and making the tea, but it was all part of the character-building process. It taught you respect, endurance and how to get on with people at work. At the end of it, I was equipped to deal with anything the industry presented."

John Ettridge spent four days at work and one day at college a week and passed the City and Guilds welding and fabrication exam.

Now, after 17 years in the industry, he is in charge of the Modern Apprenticeship scheme at Woolwich. So far, the college has set up 60 places in motor mechanics and body repairs, travel and tourism and social care. Six companies are interested in joining the scheme and the first Modern Apprentices should start this summer. They will work four days and attend college one day, and will gain a national vocational qualification after three years.

It is a partial return to the old apprenticeship system, Mr Ettridge believes. Employers have woken up to the fact that well-qualified, well-rounded youngsters are now in short supply.

Britain may now be paying the price for the Government's crusade to deregulate training and give employers more control over how it is organised. The old industry training boards and the apprenticeship schemes they supported were abolished in the early 1980s. They were seen as costly and irrelevant to a rapidly-changing industrial scene.

Many observers now believe that decision was seriously misjudged, and the schemes which replaced them - from the Youth Opportunities Programme to the Youth Training Scheme to Youth Training - failed to generate the skills required. They were too focused on the needs of individual employers instead of those of industry as a whole, and under resourced.

Whether the modern apprentices will live up to the standards of their predecessors is an open question. There have already been problems getting the scheme off the ground, with only 15,000 of a targeted 60,000 trainees signed up so far.

Despite the Government's advertising and campaigning, many young people see Modern Apprenticeships as second-rate routes to employment or higher education. And although they will provide a more thorough, higher-level grounding than previous schemes, there are still doubts about whether they will solve Britain's growing skills shortage.

Professor Alan Smithers of the centre for education and employment at Brunel University says the Modern Apprenticeships are flawed.

"There was a strong element of time-serving in the old apprenticeship system but that was part of what made it valuable to employers," he adds.

"They knew they had someone with them for a fixed amount of time. It was worth investing in them.

"But the Modern Apprenticeships are based on the NVQ, which is really about qualifying people for what they are already doing. It is not tied to any particular length of time, which is not a good way of preparing people for industry."

Professor Smithers points to Germany for an example of the kind of system we ought to be aiming for. There, employers, educators and state governments agree on syllabuses for the apprenticeship scheme which takes around three-and-a-half years and provides across-the-board training in more than 300 occupations as well as a general education.

The schemes are popular because they lead to a well-known and respected qualification. The apprenticeships are so highly valued that it is quite common to do an apprenticeship before going to university - or even afterwards.

Employers respect the apprenticeships because they recognise that they provide a thorough training in all the skills required for a particular occupation, and the vocational schools are entirely paid for by the state.

"There is a lot in the German system to commend it," says Professor Smithers. "It means the students are not only expert in their craft but also have flexibility."

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