A route-map to Labour’s revolution in apprenticeships

Britain faces a stark choice: a race to the bottom in skills and wages or a race for the top in the demanding 21st century economy.

Fifty years ago, only 20% of young people left school with any qualifications at all.  Now the figure is 90%. Forty years ago, less than 8% of young people went on to university. Now the figure is nearer 50%. These are great, progressive achievements. But the success we have won for some young people should not blind us to the continuing challenges of others.

A year ago the Labour leader Ed Miliband highlighted the plight of the "forgotten 50%" of young people who do not go to university. He set up a Skills Taskforce, of which I am the independent chair, to suggest practical, deliverable solutions for these young people. Last month, in the first of three final reports, the Taskforce called on Labour to embark on a national mission to double the number of high quality apprenticeships.

Less than one in 10 employers offer apprenticeships in England, compared to three or four times that number in our main European competitors. And while the UK has are some exceptional apprenticeships – such as those at Rolls Royce, Siemens, Heathrow Airport and Transport for London – much of the recent increase has been in apprenticeships that would not be recognised in these countries. Apprenticeships should be a high quality training route into work for young people, but a shocking 70% of apprentices are existing employees, up from 48% in 2007, and 94% of these apprentices are over 25 years old. A fifth of apprenticeships last for less than six months and 20% of all apprentices report receiving no training at all.

This is bad for business and for the economy. Many employers say they cannot get the skills they need to succeed and in some sectors the lack of training has led to severe skills shortages. Most importantly, the lack of good training and work opportunities caps aspiration and prevents young people from fulfilling their potential.

The Skills Taskforce makes a simple proposition: it offers employers a 'something-for-something' deal.  Employers should be given more control over skills funding and standards, and in return should be asked to create more high quality apprenticeships in their sectors and supply chains.

Nearly half of employers say that the prospect of trained staff being poached by rival firms deters them from training employees. So the Taskforce also recommends asking business what powers they need to ensure they can deliver the expansion in apprenticeships we need to rebuild the economy, such as the power to introduce levies or training requirements. It should then be up to employers, working with other stakeholders at sector level, which of these powers they will use. The public sector can and should take a lead, through both its own provision – the current provision of apprenticeships in the public sector is unacceptable – and driving behaviour through procurement.

If this sounds ambitious, it should. If it sounds impossible: it is not. Continental systems, including the German and Austrian education and training systems, already do it. The challenges are not ones of principle, but of will, and the prize is considerable.

At the Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband took on the challenge to double the number of high quality apprenticeships and said he would give employers the power to call time on free-riding by competitors who do not train. Labour also committed to our recommendations to ensure that apprenticeships are gold standard qualifications that employers and young people can trust: Level 3 or above and lasting at least two years. 

This is a good start to a major transformational task. Britain faces a stark choice: a race to the bottom in skills and wages or a race for the top in the demanding 21st century economy. Britain must not join the race to the bottom. Our goal is to transform the opportunities available to young people through efforts to develop a high skill, high productivity economy.

Chris Husbands is the director of the Institute for Education and chair of Labour’s Skills Taskforce.

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.