The Modern Apprenticeship scheme is much more than another Government scheme needing employers' goodwill
There has been a dramatic drop in the number of apprenticeships in the UK over the past seven years. From a peak of 367,000 in 1989, there is now fewer than half that number.
Despite this, Scottish industry has consistently led the rest of the UK in the take-up of apprenticeships at just under 1 per cent of the workforce. By comparison, in regions such as the Midlands, participation barely exceeds 0.5 per cent.
This enthusiasm for apprenticeships is complemented by Scotland's figures for the proportion of its 19 to 21-year-olds with qualifications at vocational qualification level 3 or higher.
Scotland is beaten only narrowly by the London area in the UK league in this regard at 51 per cent, with the British average down at 44 per cent. But there is no cause for complacency, hence the importance of Modern Apprenticeships which are designed and driven by industry and aimed at meeting the needs of employers for a better-trained workforce.
The Modern Apprenticeship is part of the Skillseekers initiative of Government-sponsored job training for 16 to 18-year-olds which are run by the local enterprise companies. The Government has set a target of 1,000 apprenticeships to be up and running by the end of March.
The Government thought long and hard about using the word "apprenticeship" even when it was to be prefaced by "modern" because of the many negative connotations associated with apprenticeships - the male-dominated, overwhelmingly blue-collar and time-serving image they had. While these elements have been corrected in MAs, market research conducted for the DFEE found that many people, particularly parents, had positive associations with the word "apprenticeship", notably the idea of quality training both on and off-the-job plus the likelihood of employed status and career opportunities with a dedicated employer.
These and additional positive attributes have been taken forward with MAs. In particular, the rigid structure and the serving of time in a traditional apprenticeship regardless of how bright the young person was, has been replaced by a flexibility of the MA within Skillseekers which is not time-bound and which allows the young person to develop at their own pace.
Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) in Scotland have enthusiastically welcomed the MA with 19 frameworks in industry already approved and 33 in the pipeline.
MAs were launched south of the border in early 1994 about a year earlier than in Scotland. According to the recent Ernst and Young research evaluating the initiative in England and Wales, young people have given MAs an overwhelmingly positive welcome. Where a small amount of negativity was encountered in youngsters (in 10 per cent of cases), the source was tracked back to schools and teachers. This is perhaps not surprising given that many teachers started their careers when the sole positive outcome from 10 years of schooling was the acquisition of orthodox academic qualifications leading to more of the same in sixth forms, colleges and universities.
However, because of the flexibility inherent within Skillseekers, pupils who do choose to stay on at school or college to complete their Highers will still have the option of switching to an MA thereafter. For school guidance staff, MAs should be seen not as competing with other positive outcomes but as a valuable addition to the menu of opportunities open to youngsters.
The marketing of MAs to young people will be predominantly by guidance staff as part of Skillseekers. Information on locally-available opportunities is likely to come from ITOs via the local careers service company as part of its service level agreement with schools. However, the importance of parents in influencing pupils' decisions should not be underestimated and they should not be left out of the marketing equation. In the Ernst and Young research 48 per cent of young people said that the most positive influence on their decision to become a modern apprentice was that of their parents.
Modern Apprenticeships under the Skillseekers umbrella in Scotland are likely to represent an increasingly viable and valid alternative not just to Highers but also to FE and even HE. Prospective university students may well be looking with some trepidation at the prospect of four years of grinding poverty compounded by graduation with a hefty overdraft. By contrast Modern Apprenticeships represent a culture of earning while learning. In England modern apprentices' pay has averaged pound;76 per week with some being paid as much as pound;165.
Many prospective undergraduates may therefore forsake the kudos of having letters after their name by the age of 21 for training with employed status as a modern apprentice. It will be possible to enjoy the best of both worlds. Although Modern Apprenticeships offer vocational qualification level 3 , this is very much a minimum and there is nothing to stop young people moving on to higher-level vocational studies within the company andor degree- level study.
Some ITOs have already developed appropriate links with Scottish universities. In particular the Paper Education and Training Council has linked with the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, as well as with universities in England. Professor Nicholas Wiseman recently spoke of the potential benefits to both HE and the students. He said: "Some of our best young entrants to our degree course at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology are people who have served a few years in the paper industry. What's more on graduation, these people command top salaries because of their combination of practical and scientific skills."
The marketing of Modern Apprenticeships to employers is likely to be more problematic. Scottish Enterprise and Highland amp; Islands Enterprise make funding available to ITOs for the marketing of MAs, as individual industrial frameworks are agreed. Local enterprise companies are likely to form a second prong of the generic marketing strategy within Skillseekers.
While it can be argued that MAs will increase employer awareness of vocational qualifications there is something of a chicken and egg dilemma here. South of the border in some non-technical sectors such as information technology, retail, business administration and childcare, many employers had to be sold the benefits of vocational qualification level 3s in the first place, before the marketing of Modern Apprenticeships could even begin.
In Scotland, in the midst of the turmoil at Higher Still, the review of post-16 education and training, these problems of employer understanding are likely to get worse before they get better.
Marketing may not be a matter of life and death but as the Ernst and Young research indicated, it is more important than that. In their survey, employers expressed a high degree of satisfaction with 10 of the 11 different aspects of the MA initiative.
The exception was on the level of publicityadvertising for the initiative, with 45 per cent of employers either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with activity in this area.
It is worth emphasising that the Modern Apprenticeship initiative is not just another Government scheme in need of employers' goodwill and not much else. The initiative is owned and driven by industry, with employers responsible for meeting all the wage costs plus the costs of the majority of the young person's training. For MAs to flourish it is essential that individual employers are sold on the benefits of participation from a purely business need viewpoint.
Terry Hyde directs an independent education and business consultancy.