Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
In contributing to this debate, I think back to 2008 when I launched national apprenticeship week as Minister for Skills. I recall debates in the Department at that time about why anything that we said about higher education would run right across the national newspapers and broadcasters, whereas it was very hard to get journalists to write even a small story about the importance of apprenticeships. That is largely because people in that sector, as is now the case with many politicians, have not experienced apprenticeships themselves. It has also been the case that many middle-class people in this country have not considered apprenticeships to be a preferred option for their children. For that reason, apprenticeships have languished behind.
I therefore welcome the cross-party nature of at least part of this debate, despite its being an Opposition day debate. I congratulate the Government on continuing to hold national apprenticeship week and on maintaining the National Apprenticeship Service, which I launched. It is important that the minimum length for an apprenticeship has been set at a year. All that progress is welcome.
It is important to introduce some fundamentals to this debate—otherwise, many young people searching for apprenticeships in our country might think that we have gone mad, and parents who are concerned about apprenticeships might feel that we are out of touch. At the heart of our system is the understanding that we must be there not only for our own children but also for others. In a sense, we act in loco parentis, and navigating young people through a journey into work is important and necessary. For so many—indeed most—young people, going on such a journey alongside studying is essential.
We must remember that teachers spend time working and studying, just as I did when I was a young barrister. Across many job areas, the apprenticeship—an idea as old as the human being—is necessary. Why do we still have a fundamental problem? Largely, it goes back to the central debates of our times: what is growth; what is the industrial policy in this country; and where are our jobs to come from? I think we have some problems with those issues.
We should be concerned that when we talk about apprenticeships, a significant bulk of what we mean are level 2 apprenticeships—GSCE level. If we are serious about giving people the necessary life chances, and replicating what we see in countries such as Germany, Sweden and elsewhere, we need to do considerably better and have more apprenticeships at level 3 and beyond. Are we in this House content that when we look at growth over the past years, 100,000 of the new apprenticeships are in administration, more than 60,000 are in retail and fewer than one sixth are in engineering and construction? What does that say about the underlying problems in our economy? Many of those listening to this debate want to know that when we talk about apprenticeships, we are serious about what they are.
Given that 55% of young black men in this country are languishing as unemployed, we should be hugely concerned about the ethnic minority profile within apprenticeships and—when people do get apprenticeships —about where they tend to be. Given levels of unemployment among young people, we should be concerned that so much of the growth—75%—is among those older than 25. All parties can be guilty of playing politics, but I was Skills Minister with responsibility for Train to Gain, Unionlearn and Skilling up, and 70% of these new apprenticeships are taken by those who were already employed, and that is not progress. Those people already had jobs and—let us be serious—rebadging those jobs as apprenticeships is not actually progress. It is of huge concern that we are now using the term “apprenticeship”, when we are talking about the Train to Gain programme.