As we prepare for the UK's third VQ day to celebrate vocational qualifications next week, Universities Secretary David Willetts' recent comments that "the economy needs more apprenticeships and more work- based learning" are relevant and welcome.
It is, however, imperative that we do not lose sight of the much broader significance of apprenticeship learning in the 21st century, rather than just the importance of "craftsmen". This is particularly significant within those career routes that are not traditionally associated with apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships promote and create aspirational learning pathways, deliver major benefits to the economy as well as measurable and necessary skills to the employer within a huge number of diverse industries.
VT Group is in a special position as it is not only the UK's largest learning provider, but also a major player in very different hi-tech and service industries including engineering, automotive, hospitality and retail. Employers, learners and work-based learning providers have for many years continued to recognise the tremendous impact of vocational learning within each of these sectors.
The perception of low-level jobs and career "dead ends" in a service sector such as catering is an old one. The reality is that the service sector has changed over the past two decades: hospitality currently accounts for 7 per cent of all UK jobs and 4.5 per cent of the UK's total economic output.
Industry changes mean that there are many career routes through which individuals can progress to senior roles that require a substantial skill set, which the apprenticeship framework provides.
However, we need to be wary of the notion that traditionally high-status routes and roles are the most valuable. Those who use "soft skills" in order to improve the bottom line of their organisation are just as crucial to the UK economy as those who use scientific and technical knowledge; roles using these soft skills should not be seen merely as a stepping stone to more senior positions or as inferior career choices.
In analysing the appropriate direction of funding, it is more useful to differentiate according to type of training than by sector. The Leitch report has created a drive towards targets based on the qualifications held. It is how those qualifications are achieved that ultimately makes the difference where the qualification-holder's usefulness to business and broader society is concerned.
An apprenticeship differs from simple NVQ accreditation; it is a framework of component parts that take the apprentice on a learning journey through which they gain technical skills, practical business skills, key skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT, as well as the kind of life skills that help them to function well in all areas of society.
We should not underestimate those roles that do not bring in large sums to the economy but which are essential to the deeper infrastructure of society and many of the activities and services that we take for granted.
In order for a modern society to work, we need work of all types and at all levels to be carried out well by people who are properly trained to do so.
Alex Khan, VT Group.