More than a job

Can apprenticeships meet the needs of industry as well as promoting larger ideals of social justice?

John Hayes, talking in his departmental office in Westminster, is trying hard to be rigorously on-message on the political marriage - he is conservative while Secretary of State Vince Cable is libdem - that now heads up the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. "Vince shares many of my assumptions, and we're working together effectively and successfully." He pauses. "I hope."

Hayes's brief is skills - from adult learning to vocational training, and everything in-between. It was his terrain in opposition, so he is well acquainted with the labyrinthine complexity of the acronym-heavy, quango-rich skills system. It is that very complexity he is most keen to tackle, describing the ­system as "overcomplicated, over-bureaucratic, incredibly micro-managed and top heavy".

Although Hayes is reluctant to disparage his predecessors vehemently ("I don't want to be too unkind . . . to do so would be vulgar"), it doesn't stop him pointing out where Labour went wrong. He highlights three areas: target-driven bureaucracy, the lack of attention to community-based adult learning, and the abandonment of a "generation of Neets" (young people not in employment, education or training).

On the first point, Hayes is uncompromising: "I'm determined to make the structure more streamlined, simple and slim." It sounds, in other words, like cuts. He admits that the "context of economic difficulty" and Cam­eron's emphasis on cost-effectiveness are driving influences.

However, he won't be drawn on specifics, confirming only that he has asked officials "to report on how the system can become less bureaucratic"; he has also asked the sector to make clear what it wants out of a streamlining process. But front-line workers in colleges and training providers should be warned.

“It's perfectly reasonable for me to say to them now - and I will be saying this to them: 'Look, you told me that you spend
a significant proportion of your budget in dealing with [bureaucracy]. Well, when you don't have to deal with that, you won't have to spend that, will you?'"

Bottom-up, not top-down

A lot of "streamlining" energy will be directed at the new Skills Funding Agency, which replaced the Learning and Skills Council on 1 April, a month before the election. For Hayes, the last-minute legislation that enabled the switch was a disappointment because it brought change without key improvements; there is still a need for radical reform, he believes.

"I know that, inevitably, this will mean people having to face more change" - an unwelcome proposition for many in a sector that has been contending with a shifting organisational structure for some time. It also goes against a deeper Conservative philosophy that Hayes holds dear, which is responding to "changing world economic circumstances and market demand" rather than issuing top-down directives.

Responding successfully to the market, argues Hayes, holds the key to economic recovery and will also have an impact on unemployment figures. Key growth areas, such as the IT, green and hi-tech sectors, are in desperate need of skilled employees.

But Hayes is also keen to emphasise the "craft" industries - construction workers, plumbers, carpenters - which even through the downturn were under-resourced with workers. He is passionate about reconfiguring the conception of skills - with an emphasis on vocational learning and craft (a focus that seems to complement David Willett's controversial views on higher education which implied a reduction in the number of students going to university).

This is where apprenticeships come in - an area that Hayes wants to make a central plank of his time in office. "I want to build a system where there are more apprentices than there have ever been," he says, proudly. They are vital to his strategy, he clarifies, because of how valuable they have become to both sides - learners and employers. But he acknowledges that there is still a need to make their impact more lasting - and to ensure that an apprenticeship can lead to a secure career, rather than spit out its learner at the other end with nowhere to go.

“Once you've re-engaged people, it's very important that you have progression." Only then can Hayes's ultimate ambition - for skills to contribute to "social mobility and social justice" - be achieved. Hayes sees this commitment to social justice as a "vital point" of unity between himself and Cable.

And a united front is crucial as the potentially fragile coalition government heads towards the emergency Budget on 22 June. Hayes believes his ideas are "about a big vision, a whole view of the character and nature of skills and society".

Let's just hope the Lib Dem secretary of state shares that vision.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman