Willetts damns Labour's apprenticeships record
Business, innovation and skills minister David Willetts accused Labour of having "shamefully downgraded" apprenticeships during the party's 13 years in power.
In a speech to the Conservative Party conference, he said youth unemployment rose because companies had been tied down in too much red tape - despite Labour having vastly increased the numbers taking apprenticeships.
"Labour shamefully downgraded apprenticeships," he said. "My colleague (minister) John Hayes is doing more than anyone to change all that.
"We have set aside funding for an extra 50,000 apprenticeships. I can report to conference today that we are on track to meet that commitment. And many of them will be in key sectors, such as engineering, construction and manufacturing."
Under Labour, numbers in apprenticeships rose to the highest level since the 1960s. In the mid-1960s, there were 240,000 apprentices, but the number had declined to just 50,000 by 1990. Labour inherited about 75,000 apprentices in 1997 and increased the number starting each year to about 180,000.
But many of the new apprenticeships were at level 2. Mr Willetts argues that benefits to apprentices in terms of improved earning potential only accrue with a level 3, A-level equivalent qualification.
He also said the system for funding apprenticeships was too complex. He outlined how the Treasury passes money to the government department, the department passes it on to the Young People's Learning Agency, the YPLA discusses how many places it will fund with local authorities, Connexions and the National Apprenticeship Service, before handing the money to the Skills Funding Agency, which contacts employers to provide the apprenticeships.
Mr Willetts, minister for universities and science, said: "What a system! Only Gordon Brown could create a system like that. And what was the result? The highest rate of youth unemployment ever - a million young people unemployed. We have an obligation to the younger generation and Labour failed to discharge it. We must do much better. And we will."
He also announced that apprentices will receive a title designed to give them a status comparable with graduates.
Mr Willetts said: "You should have something to mark your achievement after you have completed a rigorous apprenticeship. After you have been to university you are a graduate, yet too often there is nothing to mark the completion of an apprenticeship. That must change. Apprentices in key sectors will be officially awarded the title technician - a badge of honour, just like graduating from university."
Speaking at the conference in Birmingham, Mr Willetts also announced an extra 3,000 apprenticeships over the next three years in green technology, business skills and engineering, as a result of a partnership between the city's chamber of commerce and Birmingham Metropolitan College.
"This is what rebalancing the economy means - more apprentices with proper training in the industries of the future," he said. "BTECs, HNCs, HNDs, and City amp; Guilds. Those are the qualifications we will be backing."
Degree-level courses should increasingly be shorter, part-time and work- related, Mr Willetts said, raising the possibility of increasing the amount of HE work in FE colleges.