A new phase of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships: an aid to economic recovery

Upskilling the workforce through apprenticeships is one of the keys to recovering from recession. Two reports just published help sketch a roadmap on how this challenge could be met.

Skilled trades to grow in Wales

The first, a UK Commission on Employment and Skills’ report for Wales, Working Futures, considers Wales to be the only part of the UK where employment in skilled trade occupations is expected to grow.

According to the report, Wales’ employment growth is projected to be above the UK average for energy, utilities, construction, trade and transport. This is good news – provided that we can meet the skills demand. Building up the skills of the next generation is key.

These changes are fuelled by wider global trends. An April 2012 issue of The Economist was devoted to what it called the coming ‘third industrial revolution’ for manufacturing and innovation. “The wheel is almost coming full circle”, it said, with skilled jobs coming back to western nations from Asia because of high labour costs and higher global transportation costs.

Business & Enterprise Committee report

The second report, Apprenticeships in Wales, launched yesterday by the National Assembly for Wales’ Enterprise and Business Committee, considers that employers and training providers can use apprenticeships to prepare people for an upturn in the economy.

Working with large employers

The relationship between colleges and employers is critical. Partnerships with anchor employers such as Airbus, GE Aviation and TATA are already embedded in colleges’ strategic plans.  In future, as more mergers between colleges take place, the larger colleges that result will become ‘anchor colleges’ that will be able to engage in even stronger strategic relationships with major employers.

Spreading the risk for SMEs

At the other end of the spectrum, strategic vehicles to deliver shared apprenticeships, such as Constructing Carmarthenshire Together and Cwmni Prentis Menai Cyf, hold out the promise of new ways of working with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Wales. In these schemes, a college-owned company employs apprentices on behalf of a group of small employers in order to reduce the risk for SMEs.

Helping young people onto the apprenticeships ladder

The Pathways to Apprenticeship programme is a Welsh Government initiative that helps young people get onto the apprenticeship ladder during the recession. Its inception was welcomed by ColegauCymru, and we agree with the report’s recommendation that the Welsh Government should in future consider mainstreaming the funding, while ensuring it is aligned to economic needs and the demands of local areas.

Enabling employers of all sizes and sectors to fully engage in the development and design of apprenticeships is a priority. Sector Skills Councils have a central role to play, and as the report emphasises, they must have the capacity at Wales and UK levels to tailor apprenticeship frameworks to meet changing employer needs.

The report’s recommendation to encourage employers which have well-established apprenticeships programmes to mentor and advise SMEs could be valuable, and colleges would be happy to assist with this.

Higher level vocational training

The committee’s report highlights the need for more rapid development of Higher Apprenticeships in key sectors. This apprenticeship scheme includes both ‘on and off the job’ training while studying for a level 4 or 5 qualification (typically a HND/HNC or Foundation degree).

A question of branding and prestige

There are, however, obstacles to the expansion of apprenticeships. For example, the status and profile of a vocational route to employment is still considered by many as inferior to the academic route.  Independent advice and guidance to young people is critical, together with a better public understanding of the career destinations of those who follow a vocational route.

Unfortunately, recent research by Loudhouse in 2011 of showed that 93% of 15 year olds were unable to identify an apprenticeship as a post-GCSE option. Coordinated efforts between providers and employers such as Apprenticeships Week and Vocational Qualifications (VQ) Day help to combat such prejudices to a degree.  But, as the Assembly committee report recommends, there is work to be done on establishing a higher level of prestige for the apprenticeship ‘brand’, commensurate with the esteem afforded the vocational route in certain other European nations.

Colleges are becoming increasingly flexible and entrepreneurial in the way that they work with employers to take forward apprenticeships. This will be ever more important in the years ahead in which the demand for skilled workers will likely rebound. Colleges are up for the challenge.

A version of this post appeared in the Western Mail on 26 October 2012.

ColegauCymru’s press release on the publication of the Apprenticeships in Wales considers that driving a more highly esteemed branding for apprenticeships to be the top policy focus.

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