There is a huge demand for apprenticeships among young people but firms are reluctant to bear the costs. The key is to find a financial balance that makes it affordable for both. Neil Munro reports
Employers are not sufficiently aware of apprenticeships and this could undermine efforts to increase their number, according to a leading business voice.
Lesley Sawers, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, said the answer was to "incentivise employers" to take on more apprentices rather than set "arbitrary targets". She was commenting on the Apprenticeship (Scotland) Bill, currently going through parliament. Introduced by Labour backbencher John Park, it aims to guarantee an apprenticeship for all 16 to 18-year-olds who want one.
Dr Sawers told a conference on apprenticeships in Edinburgh last week that she agreed with the bill's aims of a "strong and vibrant" modern apprenticeship scheme, but suggested this could be achieved by stimulating demand from employers and the economy as well as from would-be apprentices.
She acknowledged, however, that demand was outstripping supply and that employers were "extremely positive" about modern apprenticeships as offering excellent, work-based vocational training. The number of apprentices has grown over the past 10 years from 8,110 to 28,028. And those successfully completing the programme have risen from 48 per cent in 2004 to 60 per cent in 2006.
Mr Park said at the conference that completion rates could be boosted further if the Government promoted the merits of apprenticeships and funded employers to take part. One of the proposals in the bill would involve giving more advice to pupils on apprenticeships while they were at school, and providing more support to employers.
Training costs are estimated to be pound;52 million this year. If half of the 20,000 people who leave school and enter further education or are unemployed take up an apprenticeship, the cost would rise to pound;77 million.
Dr Sawers agreed with Mr Park that making employers more aware could stimulate demand. Official figures showed that only 35 per cent of employers knew about their sector skills council, suggesting that two-thirds did not know where to go to find out information on apprenticeships. In turn, this meant employers were not aware of the financial support to subsidise the cost of training, one of the main "carrots" to train apprentices.
But she disagreed with Mr Park's solution, believing his bill could lead to young people ending up in a job they did not want or in a placement with an employer who did not have a job to offer.
Mr Park said that, with a million people moving out of the workforce in Scotland over the next 10 years and with major construction projects in the pipeline, there will be a huge demand for more highly-skilled employees. He wants the public sector to take the lead, and his bill envisages apprenticeship training matching employment levels: with 22.4 per cent of the workforce in the public sector in Scotland, 22.4 per cent of apprenticeship places should also be in the public sector.
The conference also heard from Hilary Steedman, of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, that firms were becoming less willing to bear the costs of apprenticeships; yet demand from young people for places was high. "The challenge is to find a balance of costs that makes apprenticeships affordable for firms and young people," she said.
Some European countries, such as Germany and France, subsidised places by payments to employers; others, including Denmark and Ireland, operated a levy system which spread the cost across all businesses. These measures have driven up the demand for apprentices from employers, Dr Steedman said.
Jim Sillars, the former MP and business consultant, noted that, if the Government could find billions to prevent the collapse of the banks, "then extraordinary measures must be taken to equip our young people with the skills that our society needs, and the skills that will give them a greater ability to sell their labour at a price commensurate with their needs and ambitions".
NOT ENOUGH PLACES
The Government has been told once again that there are too many graduates and not enough vocational places. Howard McKenzie, acting chief executive of the Association of Scotland's Colleges, says Edinburgh and the Lothians:
- can attract the world's leading professor in chemistry, but cannot staff his laboratory with technicians;
- carries out world-beating research in fluid mechanics and water management, which grinds to a halt because of a lack of plumbers;
- is at the centre of a biomedical revolution, which is slowing because of a lack of secretarial support.
Mr McKenzie directed his remarks to Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, who was in the audience at a gala dinner marking six years of collaboration between the six colleges in the Edinburgh and Lothians area.
He went on to declare that colleges must be allowed to expand if they are to provide the skills the economy needs. He pointed out that:
- graduates take the lab technician jobs then move on, barring new entrants from colleges;
- colleges have doubled the numbers qualifying as plumbers and joiners, but there are no more places available despite waiting lists of trainees and employers;
- secretarial and business admin courses have been redesigned and are full;
- four out of five applicants wanting to enter the construction industry at Edinburgh's Telford and Jewel and Esk colleges are turned away due to lack of places.
Mr McKenzie said colleges could do more for those at risk of ending up without education, jobs or training. But he had been told about a group of over 100 young people in this category who were being interviewed and who had all - "yes, all" - applied to go to college and had not been able to get in.