Can companies do business with modern apprentices?

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
Scottish Apprenticeship Week kicks off on Monday. But in financially challenging times, will firms be persuaded to take on trainees?

On Monday, the first Scottish Apprenticeship Week will be launched to promote one of the Government's flagship policies to combat youth unemployment.

In March, the Scottish Government promised 25,000 places for modern apprentices starting this year, and in August, Willy Roe's review of post- 16 education and vocational training held up modern apprenticeships as an example of best practice. Now the team at Skills Development Scotland will set out to encourage as many Scottish businesses as possible to take on trainees.

Through business breakfasts, information material and case-study handouts, SDS staff will persuade more businesses to engage with learning providers and colleges across Scotland. Increasing the number of businesses involved in the modern apprenticeship scheme in the coming months will be crucial if SDS is to deliver the Government's promise to increase the number of new-starts this year to 25,000 - 25 per cent more than last year.

Modern apprenticeships are seen as one of the keys to tackling Scotland's youth unemployment problem. The gravity of the situation was underlined last month when figures revealed that 45,000 young people had claimed Jobseeker's Allowance in July - 5,200 more than in the previous month and more than in any other month this year.

"The Scottish Government is taking action to provide people of all ages across Scotland with the skills and training opportunities to help them to find sustained, productive employment," Skills Minister Alasdair Allan told TESS. "That's why we are funding 25,000 modern apprenticeships, which will give a record number of young people the skills to enter the workforce."

Combining steady employment and on-the-job experience with formal training and qualifications, modern apprenticeships give young people a start to a successful career, says Katie Hutton, head of programme policy at SDS.

"If a young person gets into the workplace and gets a proper training programme behind them, this will set them up for the future. They will have good work experience and a solid training behind them. MAs are training people to craft and technician level, and crediting competence on the job," she said.

Plumbing was just such an example, where apprentices had not only to show the relevant knowledge of how to fix a leaky tap, but also carry out the job to the required industry standards in order to pass an assessment.

"You have to have the underpinning knowledge, but you have to be able to do it, too," Ms Hutton said.

Employers work closely with learning providers and colleges, following an individual training agreement for each apprentice, with the aim of training them to a nationally recognised Scottish Vocational Qualification of at least a level 3, with the possibility of proceeding to a level 4 in some cases.

Some modern apprenticeships also include other industry-specific qualifications, additional units from other Scottish Vocational Qualifications, or academic qualifications, such as Higher National Certificates or Diplomas.

The frameworks for modern apprenticeships are designed by sector skills councils, and list the basic achievements a trainee has to show, based on industry standards. These include trades ranging from accounting to hairdressing, photo-imaging, plumbing, security, veterinary nursing and travel services.

While there are over 70 "frameworks", or areas in which apprentices can be trained, posts will only be created if a company has demand for such a position. This should ensure that young people are not trained in a line of work in the hope that demand will develop; training should instead respond directly to demand from the Scottish economy. On the other hand, it also means that if employers do not see demand within their own businesses, it will be difficult to persuade them to take on an apprentice.

In the economy's current fragile state, nothing can be taken for granted. Only last week, Glasgow City Council's arm's-length construction organisation, City Building, announced that it had "rescued" 30 trainee apprentices who had been made redundant over the previous 24 months by their original employers.

Participants in the recent Young People's Debate at the Scottish Parliament, held as part of the Festival of Politics, spoke of the lack of security of some apprenticeships, which were not completed when businesses went to the wall.

Nevertheless, the Scottish Government, through SDS, last year supported 20,000 new-starts in modern apprenticeships; in March this year, over 32,000 people were in modern apprenticeship training, almost 22,000 of them aged 16-19. For this age-group, the Scottish Government's training contribution is slightly higher, creating an incentive for businesses to take on school-leavers and unemployed youngsters.

In construction alone, 4,583 young people were in modern apprenticeship training last March, while in 2010-11 a total of 1,612 school leavers started a modern apprenticeship in business and administration.

Employers are offered a pound;2,000 incentive to take on an individual who has been unemployed or faced barriers in the past. But how much the Government contributes to each apprenticeship over its duration depends on the apprentice's age; the nature of the individual company and learning providers involved; the trade the apprentice is looking to learn; and the qualification level the apprentice and the business are seeking to achieve.

However, even with the Government contribution, the vast majority of the cost still needs to be carried by employers, and is often many times the amount the Government chips in.

"The challenge for employers is around meeting the costs of modern apprenticeships," said Helen Martin, assistant secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, stressing this was a particular issue for small businesses.

Added to that is the responsibility of supporting an additional, inexperienced staff member in a difficult economic climate, as apprentices in Scotland are fully employed by their training provider.

Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland, told TESS the last few months had seen the prospects for growth of the economy darken, not just in Scotland and the UK, but also the US and the Eurozone. "So creating new jobs at a time when the economy is not growing as fast as we had hoped earlier this year will undoubtedly make things more challenging," he said.

He insisted, nonetheless, that modern apprenticeships were looked upon favourably by CBI members.

"When you compare them to the traditional apprenticeship, where the first year was taken up with sweeping the sawdust in the factory or making the tea, here none of that goes on," he said. "The young apprentice is put into practical and college training immediately. They become of greater use to the business and more value to themselves more quickly."

CBI members "in almost every case" took on apprentices with the intention of supporting them throughout and beyond their training, and planned to continue employing them once they were qualified. This meant there had to be a long-term need within the company for their input, and the business had to be stable enough to take on another employee over a number of years.

"It is not just about the Government saying to the employer, `Take on this young person' or `Take on a dozen young people, we will pay for it'," he stressed. "The business has to have the need for the apprentices in the first place."

However, Sylvia Halkerston, human resources director at bakery Macphie of Glenbervie, says this is precisely the time to be taking young people on as apprentices in order to prepare the business and the Scottish economy for recovery.

"If we are going to break through an economic downturn, we have to be productive, we have to be efficient, we have to be innovative, and how are we going to achieve that with a workforce that is stuck in past times?" she said.

"We have to be in a state of preparedness for coming out of any economic downtown. We need to have young, sound, trained people coming through in modern apprenticeships."

The bakery has trained modern apprentices since the scheme was developed in 1994, and now employs about 10 apprentices in engineering, bakery and laboratory work. It has previously trained people in a variety of aspects of the organisation, including supply chain, distribution, warehousing and administration, as the need has arisen, she added.

The decision on which apprenticeships to offer depended not only on business needs at the time, she explained, "but more importantly for modern apprentices, you take stock of what your needs are going to be in the future".

Ms Halkerston continued: "You are taking on young people with a certain level of academic ability and developing them for the future. They are going to have courses of study which are directly related to the job they are doing, but they are also learning core skills," she said.

While she acknowledged considerable investment was required to put a young person through training, she felt it was a worthwhile investment not only in them, but also the future of the company.

"You are getting a degree of value out of that person, but to some extent you are investing ahead of getting value," she said. "You have buy-in from them for your company. You have helped them in their thirst for knowledge, their feeling of satisfaction in achievement, so they will stay with you and grow within the organisation."

She recounted a number of occasions where apprentices had contacted her upon gaining their initial qualification, asking if they could proceed to a higher level of Scottish Vocational Qualification to expand their job- related knowledge.

Macphie had never not kept an apprentice on beyond their training, Ms Halkerston said, adding that she hoped more employers across Scotland would take on apprentices to help deliver the target of 25,000 new- starts.

"We still need to get more enlightened employers. We are living through a time where we still have people thinking that the only way to be educated, trained and secure good career development is to go to college or university and we have to dispel that myth."

This "academic snobbery", which was fuelled by schools and parents more than employers, had to be done away with, she said.

Some young people were just better suited to the vocational training a modern apprenticeship provided, or simply had no interest in going to university or college.

Roy Canning, of Stirling University's School of Education, has tracked the development of modern apprenticeships over the year.

In their early stages of development, the quality of data on MAs was very poor, particularly from the new sectors. But completion rates, at around 70 per cent, are now on a par with the rest of Europe, says Dr Canning.

The gender balance of MAs has also improved, thanks largely to their take- up in the service industries.

Yet they have a long way to go before they can bear comparison with the equivalent type of scheme operated in Germany, says Dr Canning.

Scottish apprenticeship numbers have fallen dramatically over the last 25 years in terms of their proportion of the workforce. And although the upward trend towards this year's target of 25,000 is welcome, it still lags well behind Germany, where 50 per cent of school leavers go into apprenticeships.

"It is not going to be the answer to economic and strategic development in Scotland," said Dr Canning. "Other things are happening in terms of FE and HE where the intermediate semi-professional positions are being met by more traditional training methods such as placements and internships.

"Modern apprenticeships are making an important contribution, but they are only a small part of the training strategy - the same as in England," he concludes.

The STUC offers qualified support to the MA scheme. While it hopes the Government will be able to deliver its promise of 25,000 modern apprenticeships this year, the trades union body cautions that for modern apprenticeships to retain their recognised branding, it is crucial to maintain the focus on their core values when increasing the number of apprentices and frameworks.

The STUC's Mrs Martin argues that it is also important to ensure individual industries and employers do not gain too much influence on programme content. The apprentices need to be trained in a way that allows them to work in a variety of businesses within their chosen trade, not just in the organisation which trains them.

"Any move to expand that by watering down the qualification, or tying them very closely to the employer is quite negative," she said.

From the employers' perspective, Mr McMillan argues that even where changes in circumstances or the uncertain economic climate do not allow companies to keep apprentices on beyond their training, there is still a benefit to the apprentices.

"One hopes that most qualified apprentices would be retained by the company, but that isn't going to happen in every case. At least the young person has a trade, is qualified, and is in a better position than they were before," he said.

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