Government tries to give apprentices a leg-up

The Government wants to fund an extra 100,000 apprenticeships by 2014, and is even stumping up an extra £222m in cash. But can small firms take advantage?

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
To mark the start of National Apprenticeship Week, Business Secretary Vince Cable said on Monday that the Government plans to boost funding for apprenticeships to £1.4bn in 2011/12, with the aim of delivering an extra 100,000 places by 2014. And he's already got lots of big employers signed up to the cause: Microsoft has committed to providing 1,000 spots over the next three years, while the likes of BT, Virgin Media, British Gas and McDonalds are also on board.

Apprenticeships are getting a lot of attention from politicians these days, who are hailing them as (part of) the solution to the UK's increasing skills shortage. Businesses clearly see the benefits: according to a new City & Guilds report, over half of those companies who already recruit apprentices believe they offer greater value than hiring university graduate, while 89% think such schemes are key to their success over the next two years. And the demand is clearly there too: BT, for example, received 24,000 applications for the 221 places on its scheme last year. What's not to like?

Well, unfortunately the City & Guilds report also found that four out of five companies have experienced barriers to hiring apprentices. And SMEs are still struggling to get involved - citing employment law (including things like liability insurance) and a lack of funds as problematic hurdles. There’s also the drop-out rate, which sits at a relatively high 25%. This could be something to do with the £2.50 an hour minimum wage for the first year. Preferable, perhaps, to loading yourself with debt for the privilege of swanning round a campus reading lesser English poets and enjoying pound-a-pint nights. But still a barrier to entry for anyone from a less well-off background.

Status is also still an issue. Last month Skills Minister John Hayes said he wants sector skills councils to operate like medieval ‘guilds’ – designing new professional qualifications and giving greater kudos to those who achieve high levels of technical aptitude. He described the plan as  reminiscent of Wagner ‘with just a bit of Vaughan Williams’. A slightly grandiose way of describing schemes that train kids to lay phone cables, perhaps, though maybe this will change.

There's certainly no shortage of political support for apprenticeships. Labour MP Catherine McKinnell has just introduced a bill in Parliament to ensure that companies winning large public procurement contracts commit to providing apprenticeship places. And if that wasn’t enough, City & Guilds is today launching Million Extra, a campaign aimed at helping one million people start an apprenticeship between now and the summer of 2013. Now we just have to make sure that these schemes get some practical support too, to make sure it's not just big employers who can take advantage.

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