More to it than just construction

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Apprenticeships are suddenly all the rage, but what are the prospects in a recession? Neil Munro reports

In Scotland and England, increasing the number of apprenticeships is at the top of the skills agenda.

A Bill is going through the Westminster Parliament which, among other things, will introduce the right to request time off to train (applicable to Scotland) and establish a statutory right to apprenticeships for young people (not applicable).

In Scotland, Education and Lifelong Learning Secretary Fiona Hyslop is to convene an "apprenticeship summit", following the SNP Government's acceptance of Labour's demand for more modern apprentices in last month's budget negotiations. The deal creates an additional 7,800 apprenticeships, at a cost of Pounds 16 million, which will bring the total available this year to 18,500.

Already, 700 have been laid off in Scotland since last October. And, in a letter to The TESS last week, Michael Levack, chief executive of the Scottish Building Federation, predicted that from a high of 5,000 apprenticeships in the construction industry in 2007, the figure could fall to 2,500 in the coming year.

Some action is already underway. The Scottish Government has set up a national group to examine ways of supporting apprentices through the recession. There is also a "college recession group" in the FE sector which will share labour market intelligence, so they are aware which industries are growing or in decline and align their courses with apprenticeship needs.

The Government is also under pressure to ease some of the restrictions around modern apprenticeships, which are almost entirely aimed at 16 to 19-year-olds. It has already excluded some occupations from age requirements - construction, engineering, the car industry, craft bakery and butchery.

There have been moves to extend modern apprenticeships from an SVQ level 3 (equivalent to HigherAdvanced HigherHNC) by introducing an SVQ level 2 (Standard grade GeneralIntermediate 2 equivalent) in a number of trades - bakery, butchery, chef training, hairdressing, vehicle fitting and construction. At the opposite end, bodies like the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils Scotland, the employer-based bodies which speak for the training needs of 90 per cent of the UK population, are keen to see modern apprenticeships extended to SVQ levels 4 and 5, competing with HNDs and degrees.

Jacqui Hepburn, chief executive of the alliance in Scotland, is keen for apprenticeships to move from the ancient "biblical" trades of construction and engineering to embrace modern sectors of the economy, such as the life sciences, tourism, renewables, the creative industries, energy and health.

Already a consultation carried out by the alliance with individual sector skills councils has established that there is demand in a number of these areas: even the Financial Services Skills Council identified the need for an MA at level 3.

Ms Hepburn believes that a major effort should be put into targeting these occupations where modern apprenticeships do not exist or which are crucial to economic growth. This has, in effect, begun as the SNPLabour deal on apprenticeships agreed they should focus on green jobs, the creative industries and financial services.

"The recession should be seen as an opportunity to invest in apprenticeships," she says. "The message for industry must be that this is not just an investment in learning and skills, but in equipping them to grow their business and emerge more strongly from the recession."

Any bid to extend apprenticeships, to other sectors or ages, comes with a price tag - each apprenticeship costs the public purse between Pounds 2,500 and Pounds 6,000 as a contribution to training costs (the employer picks up the wages bill). Skills Development Scotland is currently considering how much it can afford to fund MAs for adults.

Scotland is the only part of the UK where modern apprentices have full employee status, which has its downside - no job, no apprenticeship. Some FE colleges believe part of the answer could lie in greater integration between college courses and apprenticeships.

At a meeting during the Scottish Labour Party conference this month, Craig Thomson, principal of Adam Smith College in Fife, said: "The only effective way to avoid trainees being the victims of this economic downturn and upturn is to ensure that it's easier for them to move their funding and credits between modern apprenticeships and the broader vocational system."

Ms Hepburn believes this may be possible in cases where people are nearing the end of their apprenticeships. But not possible where they have just started and have yet to demonstrate competence in the workplace, a key ingredient of their training.

Her vision for an MA is for them to be treated as in the other, more venerable MA. "I hope the same academic weight can be given to an apprenticeship as to a degree," she says. "Our aim must be to have apprenticeships for all ages and stages."

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