Building a bright future for Britain's job trainees

The Government's £1.4bn investment in apprenticeships faces its biggest challenge in Britain's schools. Sarah Arnott reports
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The Independent Online

Fashion designer Stella McCartney, Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs, WS Atkins chairman Allan Cook – what do they have in common? They all started out as apprentices.

Apprenticeships are back in vogue. Nearly 280,000 people joined schemes last year and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, hopes British companies will create another 100,000 places by 2014. To help, he is boosting the Government budget that pays for the qualification component of company programmes by more than £220m to £1.4bn for the coming year.

"I want to reinforce the message to business and young people that apprenticeships are a first-class way to start a career," Mr Cable said in a speech yesterday to mark the start of Apprenticeship Week.

With university tuition fees set to rise to up to £9,000 per year – and the aspiration that 50 per cent of school leavers go on to take a degree largely abandoned – apprenticeships are an increasingly attractive option.

There has already been considerable progress since apprentice numbers hit an all-time low of just 60,000 in the mid-1990s. And Mr Cable hopes the extra dollop of government cash will help push the numbers up to 350,000 in 2011/12.

Quality is also improving. Nearly three-quarters of those starting a programme complete it, compared with just 25 per cent 10 years ago. A whopping 92 per cent of apprentices stay on with their employer after the end of the scheme.

Some of Britain's biggest employers were falling over themselves to announce expansions of their schemes yesterday. There are an extra 12,000 new places to be added this year at companies as diverse as British Airways, McDonald's, Nissan and Siemens. Morrisons alone is creating 6,000 extra apprenticeships to help staff its expanding supermarket chain. Microsoft is to add another 1,000 in London alone over the next three years.

But the biggest barrier to progress is that school leavers either do not know the schemes are available, or are put off because of the perception that vocational training is "second-best" to a university degree.

The government-backed National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) is working hard to change the "snob" value of an academic education by encouraging local authorities to put apprenticeships on the radar of schools in their area.

It is also promoting events to boost the cachet of vocational skills, not least by showing the esteem in which they are held in other countries.

One such is World Skills London – a competition to be held at the Excel exhibition centre later this year where 19 to 24-year-old representatives of trades from engineering to floristry from 53 countries will compete for medals in 45 different skills categories.

But while school league tables continue to focus on university entrance numbers as an index of success, it will be tricky to get schools to give vocational training an equal weighting.

"We've got to change the perception that an apprenticeship is a second option because it really isn't," Simon Waugh, the executive chairman of NAS, said.

"There's no doubt that the system in schools is much more orientated to the academic route because of the cultural snob factor."

Part of the message is that the profile of apprenticeships is changing. Where once they were dominated by engineering, manufacturing and construction, the fastest growth sectors are now retail, technology and hospitality.

"Apprenticeships should be seen as the definitive way of training people – it doesn't matter if they are an engineer up a 50-metre wind turbine or a call centre operator in the financial services industry," Mr Waugh said.

Even traditional factory-floor apprenticeships are not what they used to be. Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) said yesterday that the 1,500 people being hired to build the new Evoque model at its Halewood plant will all be trained to Intermediate Apprenticeship level.

The company is also doubling the intake of its four-year Advanced Apprenticeship scheme to more than 100 this year. The boost is a response to technological changes that have seen car factories transformed from metal-bashing workshops to sophisticated computerised productions lines, according to JLR human resources director Des Thurlby.

"The apprentices we have are as likely to work with a laptop as a spanner because the plants are increasingly high-tech and need workers skilled in electrical and electronic controls," he said.

The company still hires more graduates than apprentices, at a rate of around three to one, but as increasing numbers of apprentices go on to further studies, including JLR-sponsored degrees at nearby Coventry University, the gulf bet-ween the two tracks is closing.

"We welcome anything that says to children at school that apprenticeships are a good life option," Mr Thurlby said.

"Not everybody has to go to university but that doesn't mean they will be held back in their career."

Case study: from apprentice to fleet management engineer

Rachel Hoyle, 24, is a fleet management engineer building Typhoon fighter jets for the Saudi Arabian air force, as part of BAE Systems's multimillion-pound, Government-brokered SALAM project.

She is also a keen advocate of apprenticeships. "There are hundreds of employees in a company like BAE Systems and there is something to learn from all of them," the former apprentice says. "In a classroom there's just a single person."

At 16, Ms Hoyle had a clutch of good GCSEs and was deciding what subjects to take for A-level when a spell of work experience at BAE Systems introduced her to the idea of an apprenticeship.

In the teeth of parental opposition – "My mum thought I was wasting my intelligence," she says – she left school to join the defence giant's four-year programme. "I wanted to be independent, rather than keep relying on my parents," she says. "I found out that I could earn and learn at the same time and I wanted to take responsibility for my own career."

The BAE apprenticeship scheme included stints in all different parts of the company and one day a week studying for formal qualifications. By the time she completed the programme, Ms Hoyle had a Level 3 NVQ in technical services and an HNC in aerospace engineering. She now has a permanent job with the company, and is doing a BEng honours degree in Mechanical Engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University, also sponsored by BAE, which she will finish this summer.

"I could have ended up in a similar role through the purely academic route," she says. "But I am now in a position where I am 24 and I've been in the industry for eight years – so I have all that experience and those contacts as well, and all that is stuff you wouldn't get out of a textbook or a classroom environment."