"Apprenticeships offer young people a real qualification and a real future. They help businesses grow their own talent." So said skills minister Nick Boles when he announced the details of National Apprentice Week 2015. And there is no doubt that apprenticeships have the political wind in their sails. The subject has become a pre-election buzzword, with every political party jumping on the bandwagon.
More than 100,000 employers covering more than 170 industries now offer apprenticeships in England. But in the final analysis, will apprenticeships go down as a political gimmick or an important new social trend?
Well, I for one am discovering how powerful they can be. Brokerbility, the group of 37 independent insurance brokers that I chair, launched an "academy" in March this year to invest in potential new employees. It features an industry-accredited apprenticeship programme that is already up and running. We have hand-picked 40 young people and plan to have 100 on the programme in three years' time.
The first question, perhaps, is why? Why are apprenticeships relevant to us today? In the insurance sector, "succession" is the answer. We have an ageing workforce and a skills gap is opening up at the younger, entry level. In the past, talent was relatively easy to find. You would just headhunt high-flyers from the local branches of big insurance companies. This is no longer possible in the regions, since most of the big firms have withdrawn to the major conurbations.
Of course, we already have our own very successful graduate training programme. But graduates are different from apprentices, as I have witnessed observing my own children. Graduates are impatient to progress - which is perfectly understandable when you've a pound;30,000 debt to repay. This leads to somewhat prejudged expectations of success and salaries, and a tendency to have itchy feet.
Apprentices have more time. Our apprenticeship scheme gives A-level school-leavers a genuine alternative to university. At the end of the 15- to 18-month course, they will be professionally qualified with the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII). But equally importantly, they will have hands-on experience of all the key insurance operations, from underwriting and claims to sales and marketing. It is a sustainable approach designed to bring talented people into the insurance industry in a way that will make them want to stay and become its future leaders.
So what are the ingredients of a good scheme? First, it needs a coherent structure, preferably with public-private cooperation. Ours contributes to the government's insurance growth action plan - a package of measures designed to strengthen the insurance sector's contribution to the UK economy. The programme is CII-accredited and Brokerbility aims to support members' growth and succession planning. But above all it is a beacon for talented people who may not have considered a career in insurance and will take the sector forward for many years to come.
Of course, process is important in attracting and keeping talent. We have developed an easy-to-use, web-based recruitment site that is clearly working - we had 560 applicants for our initial intake in September. And the quality of entrants is superb. The online application process includes a range of occupational testing as well as assessments for verbal, numerical and logical reasoning skills. Individual employers also draw on psychometric testing.
Pathway for progression
A great deal of effort has gone into providing the best experience possible for apprentices and overcoming preconceptions about the profession. No one on the programme will feel short-changed or unprovided for. Attention to detail is the key - whether this is in terms of the quality of online courses, lecture and conference provision or trips to London's insurance heartland to meet industry leaders.
Trained mentors provide vital support for the young people as they move through the programme and help to establish clarity over each apprentice's role and ensure the full support of their peers, line managers and colleagues.
Above all, apprentices are never allowed to lose sight of their pathway for future career progression. All Brokerbility members have committed to providing clear career routes for apprentices and to supporting them in further study for qualifications.
Our members have been impressed by the apprentices' willingness to learn. They are fast-tracked to gain experience in different sectors of trading, and this practical training and knowledge allows them to quickly become productive members of a team. This helps to alleviate the financial burden of the Brokerbility Academy on employers. We also maximise available national and industry funding.
It is perhaps too early to assess what impact the apprenticeship programme is likely to have on my own business, but there are already signs that it is changing the culture. The programme has played a significant role in the overall development of skills in areas such as website design, recruitment, marketing and PR. In addition, the project has led to greater engagement with industry partners and government bodies dedicated to the promotion of young talent.
Apprenticeships open a gateway to social mobility. They provide another route to rising talent. And they encourage those higher up the hierarchy to reassess and seek new challenges. It is for this reason that our academy recognises that career development is a never-ending story. It rests on four pillars: apprentices and graduates, career returners, people who are new to the industry and retired stars.
The strength lies in the mix and I am convinced that apprentices will play a growing role in our thriving businesses. They will also take up the baton in the race to build a better understanding of the achievements of the insurance sector and its importance to the British economy.
Maybe for once the politicians have got it right.
Ashwin Mistry is chairman of Brokerbility, a group representing independent insurance brokers. National Apprentice Week 2015 will take place on 9-13 March