It is good news that apprenticeships are finally being taken seriously as part of the solution to the skills shortage, but further action is needed to fully benefit the industry.
The announcement that the UK government is to “enshrine in law” its commitment to create 3M apprenticeships by 2020 is very welcome news and clearly indicates that vocational training has a key role to play in meeting our future skills needs and to support economic growth. However, as the ambition is non-sector specific, the engineering sector particularly needs to step up and play its part as it will have to compete with other major sectors such as health to attract staff and capitalise on this opportunity.
Some companies rely on graduate intakes to bring young people into their business but do not provide any opportunities for apprentices and that needs to change. In the recent budget it was announced that a levy will be applied to all large companies to ensure that businesses invest in an apprenticeship programme. Those that invest will receive funding from the levy. The details of how this will work have yet to be determined but I just hope that the administration of this levy is kept simple and does not set off a new complicated bureaucratic process for employers to deal with.
While there will always be a place for graduates, there are an increasing number of companies that are recruiting a mix of graduates and apprentices. This is a move in the right direction but there is still much more work needed to ensure the engineering industry gets the most out of apprenticeships. One of the main challenges still to be overcome is that many companies don’t view apprenticeships as just the start of a long career but often see it as an end in itself.
Both graduates and apprentices have the potential to be future leaders. After someone has completed an apprenticeship it should be the norm for them to continue their education and learning through a more academic route or through advanced apprenticeships. For example, I am delighted that HS2 have not only committed to 2000 apprenticeships but with government support establishing a National College at Birmingham and Doncaster to develop higher level apprenticeships that we so badly need.
Some companies are leading the way by employing a mix of apprentices and graduates to tackle the skills shortage in the infrastructure sector. However, too many companies are still not taking up this opportunity, which means they are missing out on getting the most skilled workforce they can.
Even when the right opportunities are available, the industry still needs to reach out to young people before they start to make career decisions to make them aware of the choices available to them. Crucially, we need to breakdown parental prejudice against apprenticeships by demonstrating that in engineering it provides excellent opportunities to develop a long-term career.
Events like GE’s Next Generation Awards help to celebrate the achievements of young people who have already made their first steps on their career path. Even being shortlisted for an award like this helps people to think about their achievements and boost their confidence. These people are role models for future graduates and apprentices.
Crossrail’s annual Apprenticeship Awards have really helped raise the profile of apprenticeships as well and have highlighted the companies that are willing to invest in training.
I would encourage individual companies to go out and make themselves heard in schools, colleges and the community, also giving people like the Next Generation finalists the ability to act as ambassadors for our industry.
The government is trying to do the right thing with its apprenticeship target. The aim of delivering 3M apprentices is a good start, but quantity must not be at the expense of quality. The mix of sectors is the key to the initiative being successful in improving productivity in our industry as well as providing the next generation of skilled workers. It’s down to the sector to respond positively to the government’s initiative to ensure we can make the most of these opportunities.
Terry Morgan is chairman of Crossrail and will be the guest speaker at the GE Next Generation Awards ceremony on 19 November.