Labour has promised to overhaul apprenticeships –correctly arguing that compared with the demand for them, there has been nowhere near enough and that most have been low level only lasting for a year, often in low paid sectors of the service economy rather than in manufacturing, engineering and construction. Until recently also, many employers have converted existing employees into apprentices –allowing training providers to access state funding and government to meet its targets.
This is the context behind Ed Miliband’s conference speech in which the Labour leader promised to increase apprentice numbers to levels equivalent to the 400 000 plus young people who start university every year. But the announcement also tallies with Labour’s plans to create vocational alternatives, including a Techbacc, for the ‘forgotten 50%’ not going on to Higher Education.
With 200 000 apprenticeship starts by under 24 year olds in the nine months to April this year and a 10 year time span, Miliband’s promise might appear quite realistic, yet barely half of these have been at Advanced Level, with just 2,300 at Higher (the equivalent level to university study). Also, only 20 000 of the Advanced starts have been in manufacturing and engineering.
Though Labour proposes to ensure that all firms in receipt of government contracts take on apprentices, ensuring real growth of high quality schemes will require much more. It will need to be part of an alternative plan for the economy and Labour isn’t providing one. Instead, it’s proposing an austerity plan centred on reducing the deficit, which will also have implications for apprenticeship funding.
Miliband’s proposal is a step in the right direction, but without a proper plan for job creation that provides real incentives for employers to develop employee skills, it risks being another empty promise.