This last week was National Apprenticeship Week 2020: an annual celebration designed to “bring the whole apprenticeship community together to celebrate the impact of apprenticeships on individuals, employers and the economy”. I doubt if many people noticed that this national celebration was taking place. For my part, rather than donning a party hat, I was concentrating of my role as mentor at our local state comprehensive school. Each year my wife and I offer support to a selected small group of Year 12 (17-year old) students.
We enjoy our work at the School. We have developed a deal of respect for the professionalism and commitment of the staff and find the energy and optimism, albeit sometimes misplaced, of the students refreshing. My generation of baby-boomers needs to recognise how lucky we were to enter a workforce with a booming employment market and we need to understand how much tougher things are today.
Reflecting on my practical experience at the school and building on my earlier professional experience writing and lecturing in this field, has reinforced two firm conclusions. Both have important political implications as we begin the long and tortuous process of rebuilding the Labour Party’s credibility. The first is that we should focus less on the needs of the 50% of the population who are heading for University and more on the 50% who are not going on Higher Education. It is the latter who face challenging life opportunities. The abolition of all student fees might be a vote winner but it is hardly good socialism to invite a less privileged section of the population to subsidise a more privileged section. My second conclusion, underlined by the empty propaganda of National Apprenticeship Week, is that apprenticeships lost their traditional meaning some time ago, and that far more honest reporting and less hype is needed.
No government has been able to deliver their propaganda targets for apprenticeships, and the current situation is dire. In, what was for them, a remarkable intervention in the free market, Theresa May’s government introduced an apprenticeship levy on employers in April 2017. It has failed. According to a recent research report* much of the levy has been spent on jobs “offering minimal training and low wages” or on “rebadging” jobs already offered by employers as apprenticeships. Indeed, the report goes so far as to describe 50% of apprenticeship courses introduced since 2017 as “fake”, saying they do not “relate to helping young people get started in a skilled job or occupation”.
It is a sad reflection on the Labour Party that this debacle did not feature prominently in the December 2019 General Election, but let’s turn to something that did: The Green New Deal. This idea is a central plank of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign and she claims credit for its authorship. The Green New Deal appeals to all factions of the Labour Party and beyond to uncommitted voters – particularly young people. It is an idea whose time has come.
Given this, it is essential that The Green New Deal is well-grounded and credible. It cannot be mere aspiration: if we are to regain the electorate’s confidence, we must show that we are capable of delivering what we promise. We have a long time to get things right and I make no apology for asking some hard questions now.
In a speech delivered to the Confederation of British Industries Conference in November 2019, Jeremy Corbyn introduced the idea of climate apprenticeships: “Under the plans, businesses will benefit from an average of 80,000 people per year being trained as apprentice engineers and technicians in renewable energy and transport, civil engineers and skilled tradespeople in sustainable construction, designers, welders and fabricators in low carbon industries, and sustainable agriculture and forestry specialists.”. The 80,000 annual figure was translated into a commitment to deliver 320,000 such apprenticeship in the first term of office and has been repeatedly used in all discussions on The Green New Deal. This idea is attractive and seductive. It is also totally unrealistic.
To return to an earlier point, we must be honest in our promises, particularly those that affect young people. Let me go back to one aspect of my work at the local Sixth Form. For those mentees who are not contemplating University I make use of the official Government ‘Find an apprenticeship’ online tool**. Out of curiosity I fed in ‘climate apprenticeships’ into the search engine. It produced four responses across the whole of England, one of which was bogus as the tool had picked up the phrase ‘a positive working climate’ in a logistics firm.
Now I know I am being unfair: neither Jeremy not Rebecca Long-Bailey had the opportunity to put their scheme into practice. I do however question how much serious thought has gone into the delivery of climate apprenticeship, or even if anyone has worked out what it actually means. Accordingly, I have endeavoured to contact anyone and everyone to ask how the figure of 80,000 was derived and who derived it. I have had no replies on this and must reluctantly conclude that it was plucked out of the air to give Jeremy a chance for a headline. If so, this was quite unscrupulous. We are going to have to do much better going forward.
* The report Runaway Training was published January 2020 by the think tank EDSK: see https://www.edsk.org/publications/runaway-training/ and https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-50973579
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