Apprenticeship Week 2010

This week (1-5 February 2010) is Apprenticeship Week, with events and initiatives to draw attention to the value of this flagship training programme.

The concept of apprenticeships is an idea that can be traced back to the middle ages. This antiquity is its biggest strength – it is a tried and tested model, familiar to employers and widely respected by the country at large.

Today, apprenticeships are supported by all political parties, and this broad consensus provides a valuable element of stability at a time of great change across the skills landscape. With the reality of tough spending decisions looming large, government funding for apprenticeships has the potential to be squeezed along with everything else. The benefits to the economy of continuing to support skills in the workplace mean now is not the time to turn off the tap.

The evidence from the current recession is that employers recognise the value that good skills add to their workforce, and they have made great efforts to keep hold of them. Estimates from the Department for Business show that employer spending is more than three times the entire budget of the Learning and Skills Council. So while government support is hugely important, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is companies continuing to invest their own resources in training that holds the key to sustained growth as we head into recovery.

Just as apprenticeships have a long history, so does government regulation of them. The first recorded piece of legislation to deal with the issue contained sentiments that could still apply today. It stated: ‘Although there remain and stand in force presently a great number of Acts and statutes concerning the retaining, departing, wages and orders of apprentices… the said laws cannot conveniently, without the great grief and burden of the poor labourer and hired man, be put in good and due execution.’

That was the Statute of Artificers (1563), which went on to declare that the existing laws on apprentices ‘shall be digested and reduced into one sole law and statute.’ It perhaps puts current debates into context to realise we are now in the 447th year of government attempts to simplify the skills system.

We need that system to be simple, not for the sake of organisational tidiness, but because employers need to be able to find the right skilled apprentices and access training for their existing staff. We need it to be efficient, not just to save money, but to ensure support is going where it can do most good. Apprenticeships are valued because they are a simple concept and offer an effective way to meet both the needs of the employee and of the company that takes them on.

The pre-eminence of apprenticeships in the skills system gives them an advantage over other programmes when it comes to dividing up what will become, over the next few years at least, a smaller cake. That advantage is to be welcomed, but no-one can afford to be complacent: it is vital for employers to demonstrate that they are taking their share of responsibility for meeting the training needs of the wider economy.

In return, we should expect the government to be clear where its priorities lie. The skills funding system is at present too much geared towards annual rounds of funding, whereas business has to be able to plan three, five or more years ahead in committing to training.

While apprenticeships for 16- to 18-year-olds are understandably the current government’s main focus, the value of adult apprenticeships must not be forgotten. The EEF lobbied hard for older workers to receive funding in this way, and the benefits should be clear for all to see. It would be unforgivably short-sighted to cut off support for this strand of funding and lose the vital contribution that the retraining of older workers can make. A long-term outlook is essential if we are to guarantee that apprenticeships are valued for life, not just for this one week.

by Nigel Fletcher, skills policy adviser, EEF


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