Some three years after the BBC’s Panorama dramatically exposed the misuse of apprenticeship funding by the supermarket chain Morrison; this week’s Channel 4 Dispatches provided further disturbing evidence of how young people continue to be short changed, but also public money misspent, despite government reassurances that the reintroduction of apprenticeships has been a resounding success. Dispatches main target was the clothing chain Next, where young people taken on as ‘apprentices’ complained of low-pay, little if no proper training and worst of all, not even being given permanent employment at the end. Meanwhile, the company had continued to receive government funding – £1.8 million last year – to run a training program now rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
A Great Training Robbery Using research by the Social Market Foundation, including that by Alison Wolf, commissioned to provide a review of vocational education by the Coalition in 2010, Dispatches argued that training organisations, in order to maximise their income have concentrated on providing low-skilled, but also ‘easy to complete’ and ‘easy to deliver’ apprenticeships in sectors like retailing; encouraging employers to use apprentices as a form of cheap labour without having any obligation to offer them future employment. These sorts of practices, do not, the SMF argues, significantly increase future earnings of the individual and they certainly don’t help the ‘skills shortage’ in areas like engineering or in construction (where apprentice numbers have fallen by a third since 2010) and where growth is essential if future economic prosperity is to be ensured.
As Dispatches acknowledged, the government plans to introduce a levy of large firms raising £2 billion annually, thus providing the funds for better, more advanced training to provide ‘the right people with the right skills’. It also intends to give individual employers more say over the content of apprenticeship training and how funding is used. But as these changes are not due to begin till 2017 at the earliest, the program concluded that in the meantime, young people could be just as likely to vote with their feet.
Dispatches and the SMF can be commended for continuing to expose the shortcomings of apprenticeships, particularly in the light of David Cameron’s pre-election promise of another 3 million by 2020. The failure of apprenticeships to provide real alternatives for young people has been largely ignored by most researchers, campaigners and activists who prefer to focus attention and energy on the inequities of the education system or the increasingly desperate plight of teachers. But it’s also the case that compared with the angry young school leavers parked on Youth Training Schemes in the 1980s, ‘apprentices’ are a diverse group, including people of different ages –many existing employers over 25 continue to be reclassified as apprentices so that training funds can be accessed –with very different experiences in different sectors. As well as thousands being like those at Next, there are also some very good schemes offering excellent training and real opportunities.
A jobs not a skills problem Yet as well as giving apprenticeships a much greater profile, there’s also a serious need to develop a much wider understanding about their current limitations. Improving the quality and attractiveness of apprenticeships for example will be difficult without making other changes to the economy and the job structure which supports them. If thousands of apprentices are employed as counter assistants in Next, in coffee-shops, or in low-paid ‘customer service’ work, it’s in these sectors where many new jobs are being created. Likewise the reason why there are so few apprenticeships in engineering and in manufacturing is because only around 8% of the workforce are employed here. It’s not just that these sectors have collapsed as a result of overseas competition or extensive ‘outsourcing’, increased automation and the use of robotics also mean that the ‘traditional skills’ referred to by Dispatches will no longer be sought –regardless of whether there is funding available. In otherwords it’s essential that alternative proposals for apprenticeship training (and education for that matter) are part of a wider alternative for the economy in which new types of employment opportunities are both properly planned, properly funded and allow both career and personal development. With a third of the population over 65 by 2050 for example, replacing the current decrepit care service with modern professionally staffed alternative, could be one place to start.