The joint government-industry initiative on Modern Apprenticeships, launched in prototype earlier this year, is intended to breathe life into Britain's moribund system of industrial training. But what are its chances?
It is common ground that the present system is failing to supply the skills required by modern industry. The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress are agreed about that, at least. Jon Ainger, CBI policy adviser on education and training, deplores the shrinking apprentice numbers that have added to the skills shortage. The evidence is everywhere, he points out, and the conse-quences are serious: 'Take the 1994 World Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum, which shows Britain ranked only 21st in terms of the availability and qualifications of its labour pool. The only EU members lower in the list are Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece.' Apprentices in manufacturing are down 60% since 1979. 'That's a rate of decline far greater than the cut in jobs in the sector,' laments Bert Clough, the TUC's senior training policy officer. Clough blames the dismantling of all but two of the industry training boards (ITBs) in the late 1980s - plus, of course, the recession itself: 'Employers were reluctant to train youngsters when they thought they might then have to get rid of them.' So here comes the Modern Apprenticeships scheme, devised jointly by employers, TECs, ITBs and the Government, which aims to tackle the problem by equipping more young people with technician, craft and supervisory skills at NVQ level three or above.
Some 2,000 places have been offered at the prototype stage, in 14 industry sectors.
Lindsay Millington, chief executive of Steel Training, believes the scheme 'marks a revolutionary change', particularly in the sense that trainees, will have their progress measured by achievement, rather than by time served as in traditional apprenticeships. Elaine Essery, of the Engineering Training Authority, is equally positive: 'The new system includes a wider range of core skills such as communication, numeracy and problem-solving. It should lead to better qualified and better rounded young people.' Roy Stewart, head of training at Weir Group, is also strongly in favour: 'Standard rather than time-based training is the way forward. Setting targets which trainees must hit before becoming certified craftsmen is a vast improvement on having them sit next to someone and expecting some of the skill to rub off.' Acclaim is not universal, however. 'Given that there is a big black void where apprentices used to be, then doing anything is a good idea,' accepts the manufacturing director of a Wolverhampton engineering company. 'But the actual skill level achieved by the old system was extremely high. I'm concerned that these problem-solving and communicating trainees won't be able to turn out an equally high standard of work.' He could have a point. Elsewhere in the educational sphere, the tendency to tack business, presentational, language and other skills on to vocational programmes has merely served to dilute technical standards. Companies that recruit engineering graduates these days sometimes have to kick off by teaching them engineering.