Hello PPMA members and friends

This is apprenticeship week and we are told that we are in a “new era for apprenticeships.” At the start of the week there was an announcement of new “higher” apprenticeships, offering the equivalent qualification to a degree. The Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock, said at the launch, “Britain’s prosperity depends on the high-level skills that creates world-beating products and services. By creating new apprenticeships at degree level and above, the Government is sending a clear signal that practical learning is a viable route to the professions.” My answer to that is “yes, but ….” and I think we need to take a broader view.

Mr Hancock was one of the speakers at an event I attend last week (at the kind invitation of Manpower – thank you. “Preparing the 2025 Workforce” brought together people from education, government and business to discuss the challenge facing this country, in terms of the gap between the skills the economy needs now and in the future and the skills people actually leave full time education with.

It is striking that GDP per hour in this country is 27% lower than in the US, 25% lower than in France and 22% lower than in Germany. Those hosting the event have concluded that “without bold action to re-engineer our education system, so it better supports current and future skills requirements, our global competitiveness and GDP growth will be impacted.”

Alongside the competitiveness imperative, there is the cost, financial and social of not doing so. Whilst this issue is not just about young people and the needs of other generations should not be ignored, but if we were to bring the 1.03 million young NEETS into employment, that would save the public purse around £13bn over their lifetimes. Key to this integration into the workforce are the acquisition of basic and core business skills (although I am sure economic growth would help as well!).

Now I am sure that his is not the first time that the government, business and education have come together to focus on the issue, nor to have concluded that they need to work more closely together to develop a long-term strategy to address these challenges. It was in 1999 that Tony Blair famously said that it was all about “education, education, education” and set a target of getting 50% of young people into university by 2010. (Just as an aside, the best tweet I saw as the white smoke emerged from the Vatican chimney was “It’s going to be Blair and his grin that emerges on the balcony …. I just know it”). Blair’s target was not quite reached, but 43% of 18 to 30 year olds were by the target year studying for a degree. The problem though is that I now see many of them competing for jobs where the person specification only requires GCSEs. This strategy appears not to have been joined up, preparing people for life maybe, but not work. What the strategy has done is set the bar higher in terms of individual expectations around qualifications.

People do not appear to value qualifications outside of a degree. The CIPD’s recent Employee Outlook survey found that only one in ten parents ranked apprenticeships as their preferred qualification for their children, whereas nearly half chose a university degree.

It is important that we promote the value of apprenticeships and this week is a great opportunity to do so. I know that many local authorities are running events this week. In London, both the Boroughs of Redbridge and Islington are holding events for employers and young people.

Whilst there have been some great announcements of companies extending apprenticeship programmes on twitter, employers still bemoan the bureaucracy around apprenticeships which prevents many smaller businesses participating. For many local authorities, funding issues are limiting the extent to which they can continue to support apprenticeship schemes, even when they understand their value. If we are serious about addressing about creating a “new era” these barriers need to be overcome.

More fundamentally however, business, government, educators and the public sector need to come together to create what I think is a more subtle strategy. We need to develop specific talent pipelines for jobs in all sectors and at all “levels”. Whilst an aspiration to gain a degree or higher apprenticeship is laudable, we must recognise that for the economy and society to operate effectively we need fantastic tyre fitters, care workers and hospital administrators. We have to start by showing that we really value all kinds of jobs, particularly those in the public sector, creative a narrative around their importance and the fact that they represent a worthwhile career, where people will be rewarded appropriately and they can develop and progress. We can then work together to develop the specific skills needed to undertake these roles.

At the”Preparing the 2025 Workforce” event, many examples of good practice and young people excelling were identified, to make the point that it is not all doom and gloom. However there have been many great words and strategies in the past and our position on skills and on unemployed young people does not improve. We do need to go “back to basics” on this (to quote another PM) and think about the value we place on different jobs and different skills. In doing so, the public sector has a key role to play and I hope the PPMA can engage fully in the debate about delivering the workforce we need in 2025.