Apprentices "15% more employable" than everyone else. Why only 15?

You choose plumbing over philosophy; you expect to get a job.

For a while now we've been given to believe apprenticeships are the solution to all sorts of problems, like the current gap between the skilled employed and the unskilled unemployed. As I wrote a couple of months ago:

There seems to be a disconnect between educators and employers - the sectors crying out for workers (IT, engineering), match the university courses with the empty lecture halls.

How do you address this? Well, one idea is to pour money into apprentice schemes and funded places at technical colleges - which the government is, to some extent, doing. (For example, there's the Employer Ownership Pilot, a 250m funded training scheme for employers).

And last month George Osborne announced an extra £180m of funding to create 50,000 new apprenticeships. Are the schemes and the push working though? Well today the BBC has reported that qualified apprentices are 15 per cent "more employable" than people with other qualifications, according to a survey of 500 firms.

Here's the BBC:

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock said: "We want apprenticeships or university to become the new norm for young people leaving school and higher apprenticeships are an excellent way to enter high-profile careers while also achieving a degree-level qualification."

David Way, executive director, National Apprenticeship Service said: "We know that apprenticeships deliver real business benefits for employers."

15 per cent sounds great - but if you make the decision to study, say, plumbing, rather than philosophy, you are likely to be basing that decision on the idea that plumbing makes you quite considerably more employable. Maybe even completely employable. Yet in the survey apprentices scored 7.36 out of a possible 10 for "employability" as opposed to a 6.382 average of other qualifications (hence the 15 per cent difference) - still quite some way off the desirable 10.

Many problems with the government apprentice scheme have already been highlighted - inadequate training, false advertising, exploitation by employers. But it's worth noting that this survey is just an opinion poll (no commitment involved) - looking at whether employers think these kinds of schemes make people more likely to get jobs. It seems there's still some convincing to do.

Philosophy students can prove they are not a spanner. But this isn't always enough Photograph: Getty Images
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation