Apprentices: today's cuts, tomorrow's loss

20th February 2009 at 00:00

Apprenticeships have tended to get lost beneath the recent headlines of UK companies shedding jobs. The national news is mixed.

Last year saw companies which in the past would have taken on apprentices cut back. This year may see fewer still places, while some will lay off their next generation of skilled workers altogether. As companies reduce headcount from across their business, the temptation to cut back on apprenticeships is apparent but flawed.

The people who are in training now will be the same people who will pull us out of recession in the coming years. Apprentices are the seedcorn of the future and will be crucial when the green shoots of recovery come. It is vital we do everything we can to help today's generation of apprentices and safeguard the next.

The UK that emerges from this recession will require a new set of skills, and companies must recognise this. For instance, the Government's emphasis on the green agenda will require new technical skills in sectors such as the built environment and engineering. The skills we will need for the future will be greener than the ones today, but where will the people with those skills come from?

There is a danger that the UK will lose an entire generation of skilled workers. There is no guarantee that apprentices which are lost from a sector in this recession will return at some point in the future. Businesses will be losing exactly the kind of people they will need to be able to benefit from an economic recovery.

More broadly, the demographics of some sectors are such that we cannot afford this to happen. Some sectors need young, skilled people now, and the consequence of inaction could be serious. We cannot sit by.

The priority for now must be the current apprentices. It is vital that apprenticeships close to completion are completed. Stopping an apprenticeship with the intention of picking it up at a later date is not good enough.

A fully-qualified person can make a temporary career change as the market dictates, but an apprentice does not have this luxury.

The sector skills councils are working hard to support apprentices and businesses. Maintaining the college element of apprenticeships is relatively straight forward; the education system is well poised to fill in. However, finishing the workplace element is less so.

Where possible, the sector skills councils are using their field forces, who are in daily contact with businesses to connect a company laying off apprentices with those still them taking on. This is working to keep some people in apprenticeships, but the numbers that can be assisted in this way will never meet the demand.

The long-term goal must be finding a way to help employers understand that they should persevere with apprenticeships. Research suggests that companies that do not train their staff during a recession are two and a half times more likely to go out of business.

Training may not be the number one priority when businesses are under such financial pressures, but to put it on the back burner is a mistake. It is absolutely essential that businesses recognise that this recession will end. When it does, they will need their trained apprentices.

Keith Marshall, Chairman, Alliance of Sector Skills Councils' qualifications reform strategic group and chief executive, SummitSkills (skills council for building services engineering).

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