This week is National Apprenticeship Week.
All over the country, employers, schools, colleges and training bodies are using National Apprenticeship Week as a means of promoting this route into good, meaningful, well-paid work.
Hartlepool and the North- East know all about the value of a good apprenticeship. It is a large part of the cultural, social and economic history of our area.
Learning your trade at a local factory under the close supervision of an older person and then, in time, passing on the skills you learned to the next generation of young people.
Getting an apprenticeship was a passport to a better life and higher standard of living. We still have in our town the gold standard of apprenticeships. The big and important employers of the likes of Tata, EDF Energy at the Power Station and Heerema, provide the highest possible quality apprenticeships and as such are very highly sought after.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, the apprenticeships brand had fallen on hard time. No one mentioned to me the possibility of trying to get an apprenticeship when I was thinking about what I wanted to do for a career.
They had become old-fashioned and almost obsolete. In 1997, when Labour came to office, the number of apprenticeships stood at only 65,000 starts a year across the entire country.
I was proud to be Apprenticeship Minister in the last year of the Labour Government – 2009/10 – and in that year, 279,000 people started an apprenticeship. People were completing them too: in 1997, less than two-fifths of people starting an apprenticeship completed them. By 2010, that figure had risen to over 70 per cent.
People sometimes criticise what is seen as an apprenticeship these days.
It’s not like it was in my day, some say. It was a three-year course with a real job at the end of it. Now, you can do anything for 10 minutes and call yourself an apprentice.
I agree that the quality of the apprenticeship name and brand should be protected. It should be linked with employment – something I was very keen to protect when I was the Minister – and should last a minimum of two years.
The Government sometimes talks a good game about apprenticeships. The previous Apprenticeships Minister, John Hayes, was a passionate believer in the value of apprenticeships. The new one, Matthew Hancock, I’m not so sure.
At a time of huge youth unemployment both in Hartlepool and across the country, there are 25,000 fewer apprentices starting than there were a year ago, and 5,000 fewer people under the age of 19 starting an apprenticeship than there had been in 2009/10.
Of particular concern to me is that engineering apprenticeships are falling. Without giving young people the prospects and opportunities of learning a proper trade and earning at the same time, the country runs the risk of undermining skills and capability for many years to come.
I can understand that employers may be reluctant to dive into what is a very important commitment.
Companies might not have the order book or the scale to justify taking on a young person for three years.
However, I do hope that companies will use National Apprenticeship Week to think about their future workforce needs and skills needed to grow their business, and consider taking on an apprentice as a great investment in their firm’s future.