Shadow BIS secretary, Angela Eagle, warns that “when it comes to apprenticeships, the Government is overly focused on quantity over quality.”
I am delighted to mark National Apprenticeship Week. It provides a perfect opportunity both to congratulate apprentices who are working hard to get on and to praise employers who are investing in skills. It also provides an opportunity to consider what more we can do to build a modern apprenticeship system as part of a modern, inclusive and high skill economy. High-quality apprenticeships are good for employers and good for those completing them.
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Since taking on this role I’ve been keen to reach out to businesses and visit as many as possible. I recently met an employer in the tech sector who was aiming to recruit twenty-percent of their staff through apprenticeships. They’ve found apprentices show an invaluable combination of ambition, ability and loyalty. Last year I visited Sizewell B where I met twenty young people working towards higher level apprenticeships in nuclear engineering. They displayed a confidence and determination to build a career that was truly inspiring.
For too long the UK has not invested enough in apprenticeships. The Government have failed to address this; they have not fixed the underlying structural economic weaknesses which hold our country back.
The UK faces a skills emergency. The number of unfilled posts is up 130% since 2011; skills shortages make up over a third of vacancies in some industries. This is bad for businesses and for working people too. Boosting apprenticeships must be part of the solution.
I remain concerned that, when it comes to apprenticeships, the Government is overly focused on quantity over quality. Too many are at lower level. Too many seem just to be jobs, renamed as apprenticeships, with few career development prospects. Just 4 per cent of all apprenticeships started last year were Higher Apprenticeships. While the Government are right to set a target for the total number of apprenticeships, they seem to have no target for upping the number of higher level apprenticeships, nor any strategy to deliver this. Labour believes we need a laser-like focus on quality, otherwise we’ll be letting down apprentices and businesses alike.
Labour supports the principle of an apprenticeship levy. But the devil will be in the detail. There is a risk it might merely replace existing training, rather than generating new investment.
There is an issue around sequencing. Many employers face a triple whammy from the apprenticeship levy, the so-called National Living Wage (which is not a Living Wage), and auto-enrolment for workplace pensions.
There are questions about delivery; the scheme will be based on an electronic voucher system and the Government’s record with IT projects leaves a little to be desired.
Labour believes employers should be given greater flexibility in how they use funding from the levy, allowing them to work together with others in their industry to invest in their supply chain. A sectoral, employer-led approach would ensure training meets business needs.
We also want to see high-quality apprenticeships accessible to all. While the majority of apprentices are now women, there is a significant gender gap in many sectors. While apprenticeships in engineering and construction are dominated by men, women tend to be over-represented in low-pay sectors such as health and social care, childcare and hairdressing. This needs to change.
Delivering more high-quality apprenticeships is essential if we are to build a new economy. At their best, high-quality apprenticeships provide a ladder of opportunity, allowing people to build a career. They provide employers with highly skilled, work-ready, motivated and dedicated workers.
We’ve heard a lot of talk from the Government. Now is the time for action. We need both to boost the number of apprenticeships and focus on quality too. Labour will be working hard to push for a modern apprenticeship system that works for employers and for working people too.