Apprenticeships vital for Welsh economy

Scott Waddington says we should give parity of esteem to vocational alongside academic qualifications

At Government level there has never been a greater focus on increasing the number, range and quality of apprenticeships on offer, and young talent in the UK is becoming increasingly attracted to vocational training as a route to professional status and senior job roles as a result. So as its popularity continues to rise, can the apprenticeship truly begin to rival its academic counterparts as the chosen route for our next generation of young professionals in the New Year? Could 2014 be ‘the year of the apprenticeship’?

Certainly, vocational studies as a pathway to employment are becoming ever more prestigious. Industry chiefs have long maintained vocational qualifications can help address those challenges currently faced by the UK economy, and we do seem to be witnessing the first shift in perceptions required to make this a reality.

Ever more employers and educationalists are recognising the merits vocational qualifications can bring to both the organisation and the individual. For instance, privately educated pupils have been warned by Girls’ School Association president Hilary French they can no longer afford to be ‘sniffy’ about apprenticeships, while MI5 and MI6 are set to recruit up to 100 apprentices in the coming year.

Chancellor George Osborne has declared that 20,000 new apprenticeships are to be funded over the course of the next year. The result should be to cast public perceptions of apprenticeships in a new light. Just as entrepreneur Doug Richard called for in his 2012 report – the Richard Review of Apprenticeships in England – a re-examination of the advantages and diversity of apprenticeships is beginning to emerge.

As more and more prestigious organisations including GCHQ look to vocational pathways to fulfil their own skills gaps, the profile of apprenticeships is set to rise. This is partly due to the ongoing drive to create greater investment incentives in apprenticeship training from the employer’s perspective, and MI5 will surely be great ambassadors in encouraging others to engage in similar schemes.

But there is another factor that must be taken into account during the transition. There is a need for ongoing collaboration between employers and Government to ensure the quality of training is maintained throughout this process. Richard asks how apprenticeships can meet the changing needs of the economy and, ultimately, this depends on the skills our young people emerge from apprenticeships with, whatever format their training may take.

Employers and training providers alike must make sure qualifications remain rigorous and comprehensive in relation to the learner’s chosen field, and are not there simply to meet the particular requirements of a candidate’s employer. As the popularity of alternative apprenticeship formats increases, this must not get lost in the transition.

If the sole focus is on the company involved, might this restrict the scope of the training and in turn the ability of the trainee to work elsewhere in their field, should they wish to? Apprenticeships must indeed be held in higher esteem, as Richard acknowledges. Preserving their quality and scope will prove essential if we are to build on the prestige created in association with the likes of GCHQ.

A balanced and continuous exchange between employer and training provider can only support the rising profile of apprenticeships further and support parity of regard between vocational and academic qualifications moving forward.

In Wales this is achieved through the stringent regulation of providers operating collaboratively to ensure qualifications available are both industry relevant, and provide young people with as comprehensive and wide a skillset as possible.

The UK Commission’s 2012 Employer Perspectives Survey showed that employers in Wales have the highest uptake of vocational qualifications out of all the four home nations, but yet. Overall take up of vocational qualifications remains around the same level as it was at the time of the 2010 survey – 28 per cent of all employers, equating to 38 per cent of those who provide any training. This figure was higher in Wales, at 29 per cent, compared with England (28 per cent), Scotland (26 per cent) and Northern Ireland (22 per cent).

The expansion of opportunities for employers to recruit young people through apprenticeships is indeed transforming the way in which businesses are acquiring and developing the skills they need. However, there is no room for complacency. We must continue with collaborative approach and a unified mind-set if 2014 really is to be ‘the year of the apprenticeship’ – both from the employer’s and the learner’s perspective.

Scott Waddington is Wales Commissioner with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) and also Chief Executive of the Welsh brewery SA Brain and Co.

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