Britain is facing a productivity crisis, and – as the OBR’s most recent economic and fiscal outlook made abundantly clear – it is even worse than we thought. It’s widely acknowledged that no single policy solution will solve the so-called productivity puzzle, but lifelong vocational training is without a shadow of doubt one of the most important pieces of this jigsaw.
In the lead-up to National Apprenticeship Week (5 – 9 March), we rightly celebrate the important role apprenticeships are playing in most sectors. However, the urgency of the structural challenges now facing our economy means that it’s time we finally got serious about this issue, moved beyond the warm words and ensured that high-quality apprenticeships are a genuine option for all. Without doing so, UK PLC has little chance of being globally competitive in the challenging post-Brexit years to come.
Indeed, national business organisations report that firms are finding it harder than ever to recruit skilled workers, with record numbers – three-quarters – struggling to find the people they need, due to skills shortages reaching “critical levels”. In my region, the North East, more than 90 per cent of growing firms are suffering from the shortage, a startlingly high figure for an area that still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. And this is combined with the threat of a decline in EU migration that will likely increase this shortfall. Two-thirds of British businesses believe they will suffer even before Brexit.
The government appears to have been taking steps to address this growing problem – with the flagship commitment, first made in 2015, to deliver three million new apprenticeship starts by 2020. Sadly, the results so far haven’t quite matched up to the rhetoric, as there were over 18,000 fewer apprenticeship starts in 2016/17 in England than in the year before.
Most worryingly, this reduction has followed the implementation of government reforms, namely the apprenticeship levy, intended to make the apprenticeship system easier to navigate for employers of all sizes. Something clearly isn’t working, and the drop in numbers has been particularly stark for what are perhaps ungenerously described as “older” apprentices – anyone over the age of 25 – for whom the number of apprenticeship starts fell from 102,800 in the third quarter of the last financial year, to just 19,700 in quarter four.
We cannot rely on younger people alone to upskill the UK’s workforce, so enabling all older people who want to do so to take on an apprenticeship must form a key part of the government’s industrial strategy. This will become ever more important as the population continues to age, people work for much longer, and skills become even more rapidly obsolete as the economy and technology changes.
And there are a number of employers who actively recognise the transferable skills, knowledge and experience that older people bring to the workplace, and therefore the value to their organisation of giving older people a new opportunity through an apprenticeship – Barclays, BT Openreach and software giant Sage, which is headquartered in my Newcastle North constituency, representing some notable examples.
But it is diversity across the board that we should strive towards. Figures show that there remains a distinct lack of women training in certain industries – such as STEM, where vacancies are notoriously hard to fill. Shamefully, those from a black and minority ethnic (BAME) background are less likely to be accepted onto an apprenticeship programme. Breaking down the barriers that prevent groups from participation in the first place is fundamental to accomplishing change.
Altering the country’s fixation on the academic degree is an imperative part of the process. Schools must play a leading role in improving the “brand confidence” of vocational study and turning public perceptions around; one of the key recommendations made last year by the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships, which I co-chair.
The recently-implemented Baker Clause, an attempt to make promoting a wider range of post-16 options compulsory, sparked hope that change was around the corner – but a disappointing response from the skills minister to my written parliamentary question confirmed that no accountability mechanism is currently in place, making it difficult to see how any progress will be measured.
And despite the crucial importance of higher-level apprenticeships to solving our productivity puzzle and improving social mobility, there are still far too few of these opportunities available. Higher-level schemes ensure that apprentices are developing the skills our economy requires, and can lead to greater earning than most academic degrees from non-selective universities, too. But the overwhelming majority of schemes are currently delivered at level two – with just seven per cent of apprenticeship starts at the higher levels of four to seven. The IFS’ Paul Johnson poignantly surmised this dilemma, in his recent account of trying to identify a higher level apprenticeship for his son – a process he described as “staggeringly hard” with “everything pointing to university as the default”.
Of course, without ensuring the delivery of high-quality provision, setting targets for increasing apprenticeship numbers, at any level, is futile. Ofsted has revealed that nearly half of all registered apprenticeship providers inspected last year were inadequate or required improvement. If the government doesn’t rapidly take steps to improve the quality of apprenticeship training on offer, turning our productivity levels around seems a hopeless endeavour.
Unless we get serious about upskilling our population as a whole, Britain faces years of economic uncertainty and a further decline in living standards. Establishing a strategy that both diversifies and improves the quality of apprenticeships is essential to driving sustainable growth. So whilst I welcome the steps taken so far, we can do so much more to make apprenticeships a genuine option for all. And as we celebrate National Apprenticeship Week, I hope the government recognises that solving our country’s productivity predicament depends upon it.