EMC talks to the industry’s training experts and employers about their perspective on the government’s recent release of the draft Apprenticeship Bill

Apprenticeships have been gaining increasing attention from the government of late, with the draft Apprenticeship Bill the latest in a long line of initiatives set to put vocational training back in vogue and on the map.

The government wants the proposed law to play a key role in the future shaping of the UK skills base and economy and has been busy making plans for developing apprenticeships.

January saw the release of the government’s strategy for the future, called Apprenticeships in England. This report talked positively about the benefits of vocational training – Advanced Apprenticeships in particular – to employers, employees and the economy.

Then there was the launch of the first National Apprenticeship Week (25-29 February), a platform to encourage employers and young people alike to consider the merits of such training. Most recently there has been the much publicised publication of the draft Apprenticeship Bill, which is aimed to help establish apprenticeships as a serious and viable alternative to universities and colleges.

Key measures in the draft bill aim to:

• Ensure there are enough apprenticeship places so that all suitably qualified young people can take up a place from 2013;

• Outline the role of the new National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), which is being established to provide focused leadership for the Apprenticeships programme and to act as a one-stop shop for employers, making it easier for them to offer apprenticeships;

• Bring together under the NAS a wide range of services and operations currently dispersed among a range of agencies, operating a national apprenticeship-vacancy matching service to link potential apprentices with employers. This will enable employers to advertise apprenticeship vacancies through a national portal, and will help young people and adults understand the range and diversity of opportunities that exist and, where appropriate, apply for an apprenticeship online.

Skills minister David Lammy says: “This Bill now ensures that apprenticeships are a badge of quality, without question. Apprenticeships have been going from strength to strength, and over the past decade we have more than doubled the number of young people and adults starting apprenticeships. But we need to go further to secure both the number and quality of apprenticeships on offer.

“Apprenticeships are valued across Britain as a means of providing employers with a well-trained workforce that helps their business succeed. But more than that, apprenticeships are about young people learning from older people, about handing knowledge on to future generations.

“Apprenticeships also contribute significantly to businesses’ bottom line. They tackle skills shortages, contributing to increased productivity, and can help businesses weather difficult economic times. Apprenticeships are an intelligent way for businesses to invest in their future, whatever the economic climate.”

The Bill’s targets are not just specific to the electrical industry but will surely have an impact. John Burrows, labour manager for T Clarke, comments: “Any initiative that is introduced to encourage the provision of solid, government-backed, indentured apprenticeships should be embraced with open arms.

“As for willing participants, T Clarke, a well-established company that owes its success to a commitment to training, has seen no evidence this year, or indeed in previous years, to support claims that the electrical contracting industry is suffering from a lack of applicants putting themselves forward to be trained to NVQ Level 3 and above.

“This includes both apprentices of school-leaving age and the more mature candidate.

“It is most evident that there is a severe lack of apprenticeship opportunities available within the industry, especially within the larger organisations, which are more able to ride the peaks and troughs of a competitive market. The small to medium-sized companies that one would expect to perform a little more cautiously seem to be offering more opportunities.

“This is because SMEs traditionally rely more heavily on apprentices. Another factor may be that the major employers have lost or given up their training infrastructure through the years of non-training.

Reward or incentive

“It may be beneficial for the government to channel their efforts into encouraging employers to return to training by offering some kind of reward or incentive for training. This may help companies that already train to continue and may also encourage firms that do not to reconsider.”

The government intends to make it easier for employers to improve the range of apprenticeships by enabling them to include their own accredited qualification. There are also plans for a pilot wage subsidy programme for small businesses that will make it more attractive for them to offer quality apprenticeships.

As one of the main providers of apprenticeships to the building services engineering sector, JTL has watched the government’s announcements with interest. JTL applauds attempts to make vocational training a viable career pathway for the country’s future business leaders.

Caroline Turner, JTL’s director of corporate services, comments: “It is JTL’s firmly held belief that it’s not only the UK economy as a whole that benefits from apprenticeships but also the individual businesses that train. JTL supports the government’s recent drive to increase apprenticeship numbers, but with that in mind, it also believes that employers should be given additional support in their training endeavours.

“Although the cost to a company of training an apprentice is nil as there is full funding from the Learning and Skills Council, employers are still responsible for their apprentices’ salaries and other associated costs.

“Easing the burden of these costs with the release of a wage subsidy scheme will go some way to encouraging more employers to recruit apprentices, in particular in an area such as London where the demand for skilled labour is likely to increase with the ongoing development of projects such as the Olympics and the White City retail park.

“I think it is fair to say that the electrical industry is leading the way in apprenticeship training. Employers who train deserve recognition and should be held up as a beacon of success to other industries yet to recognise the value a vocational training pathway can add to their businesses and clients.

“It’s a difficult time for business as there is so much talk of recession and it is bound to leave some people feeling uneasy. But so far, it is not apparent that the electrical industry is on the verge of meltdown. On the contrary, many firms are still reporting a steady flow of work, and in some cases, an upsurge.

“As long as there is electricity there will always be a need for electricians – both commercial and domestic.”

JTL seeks to ensure that the infrastructure to deliver on these training objectives is in place. What is then needed for the industry to help the government succeed in meeting its objectives is a willingness from employers and recognition and support for them and their training endeavours.

Further information on electrical industry apprenticeships can be found at www.jtltraining.com or by calling freephone on 0800 085 2308.

Skilling time: Industry opinions

Les Bayliss, assistant general secretary of Unite and chairman of JTL

“The new National Apprenticeship Service is very welcome and a major step towards addressing the skills gaps. It will provide great opportunities for school-leavers.

“Furthermore, we hope this also leads to the development of adult apprenticeships to NVQ Level 3 as age should not be a barrier to learning, and there are many adults, particularly those with engineering backgrounds from manufacturing, who could retrain. Such individuals would jump at the opportunity of progressing into a new profession.

“However, Unite wants to work with employers to ensure that only high-quality apprenticeships are delivered by industry-approved, experienced training organisations and colleges.”

Iain Macdonald, head of education and training at the ECA

“The ECA welcomes the news that the government aims to do more to engage employers with apprentice training through further funding and incentives, as well as plans to review standards of training. Arguably, current apprenticeship training is considered by many smaller and medium-sized businesses to be difficult to engage with. We look forward to seeing meaningful proposals from the government on how it aims to attract more employers, as without them, the apprenticeships won't be delivered.

“Notably the Bill states that three-quarters of planned funding will be available for 16 to 18-year-olds. It is the ECA’s belief that training adults and up-skilling talent that already exists within the industry is key to its future and will also go some way to addressing the immediate skills crisis. We urge the government to go further with plans to support adult training.”