Politicians love talking about apprenticeships. Like “hi-tech” or “entrepreneurship”, it is one of the buzzwords of modern political rhetoric. The great thing for politicians is that these terms carry with them almost no electoral risk. Who could possibly object to a party that encourages entrepreneurs to take on apprentices – ideally at a hi-tech hub?
The reality is much more mundane. Apprenticeships remain hugely bureaucratic, and this makes them a massive turn-off for the small, dynamic startups that the government is trumpeting as the future of the UK economy. Show me the hi-tech entrepreneur who would willingly spend time navigating the prehistoric National Apprenticeship Service website, for example. The rigid, one-size-fits all application process is fine for large companies with well-resourced HR departments, but hopeless for small firms with specific, detailed needs.
Government accused of playing numbers game over apprenticeships
Very few of the politicians who bang on about apprenticeships have any experience of what it means to hire one. An exception is Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow in Essex, who was promoted to minister without portfolio after the election. Five years ago, Halfon put his money where his mouth is and hired an apprentice for his Westminster office. This was no easy matter as there isn’t any formal training or job description for the role of parliamentary assistant (one of the reasons it is so easily colonised by those young people privileged enough to work an unpaid interns).
Inspired by Halfon, we set up the Parliamentary Academy, Westminster’s first school for apprentices, in 2011. Whenever I heard an MP challenging UK businesses to take on apprentices, I contacted them to ask if they had considered doing so themselves. The excuses were predictable: they had already spent their staff budgets, had no desk space, had no one to manage someone so young and inexperienced.
But a few brave pioneers showed they were unafraid to recruit outside their usual “friends and relatives” networks. Senior figures threw their weight behind the scheme, including Matthew Hancock and Nick Boles on the government side and Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan from Labour. There have been some astonishing success stories. Hancock’s apprentice, Beth Prescott, stood as a Conservative parliamentary candidate against Yvette Cooper. Alice Hannam, an apprentice in the office of Liberal Democrat Mike Crockart, former MP for Edinburgh West, landed a job with Gordon Birtwistle, apprenticeship ambassador in the coalition government.
And yet, the nonsense continues. Over the past five years more than 2m apprenticeships were started. All the main parties made generous promises about the numbers of apprenticeships they would create if they won the election. The government has pledged to create 3m more funded by a cut to the welfare cap and removal of housing benefit from jobless 18- to 21-year-olds – but where will it find the companies to take them? It remains unclear how the extra numbers will be achieved without extra investment in careers guidance and incentives for employers (especially as take-up is falling year-on-year). The government’s own figures show that 40% of apprenticeships are taken up by over-25s already in jobs. This is not a solution for the 16% (743,000) of young people who are unemployed.
Simon Bunney, who runs the Parliamentary Academy, points to a fundamental issue: “The problem is similar to lots of areas of employment in the 21st century, including jobcentres and careers advice – how do you adapt them to a post-industrial society where the majority of employers are small?” Apprenticeships, as they stand, are a solution to an industrial or even pre-industrial problem.
The Richard review of apprenticeships, published in 2012, recognised that too many were being taken up by people already in work and that the whole concept had to be redefined for the digital age. We are delighted the new business secretary, Sajid Javid, will be taking on a Parliamentary Academy apprentice. I hope he will make it easier for small companies to take on young people. The buzzwords need to be replaced by real jobs and training for the next generation.