January 14, 2013 5:22 pm

Drive to overhaul apprenticeships

Not many 18 year-olds get to learn the basics of mechanical engineering by working on a real Trent 1000 jet engine. But access to cutting-edge equipment and facilities is one of the reasons why Rolls-Royce offers the “Rolls-Royce” of apprenticeships.

The scheme attracts 5,000 applicants for around 300 places. For would-be university students balking at the cost of a degree, it is an alluring offer. Apprentices can obtain degrees, gain work experience and start a career in a world-famous company while getting paid.

At Rolls-Royce, former apprentices are not confined to technical roles. The Assembly and Manufacturing Leadership Development Scheme (AMLDS), which incorporates a master’s degree, turns Rolls-Royce technicians into Rolls-Royce managers and leaders.

As in other companies, the apprenticeships are subsidised to varying degrees: the government contributes towards training costs. Rolls-Royce’s specialist training facilities were also built with government support. The company employs and pays its apprentices.

Despite its brand and track record, even Rolls-Royce suffers from snobbery about its technical training. Louise, now on the AMLDS, had to convince her mother that she was right to go to Rolls-Royce. But she says: “Now she’s glad I didn’t go to university.”

Adam, 19, moved to Derby from Essex after his A-levels to start his current role as a mechanical engineering apprentice. But his school actually filled out and submitted university application forms on his behalf as part of its attempts to persuade him into higher education.

Prejudice about the superiority of academic education is a particular problem in the UK. This may be, in part, because technical education has been an area of longstanding weakness. Since the late 19th century, successive UK governments have seen it as a problem.

The coalition hopes to tackle it by reforming the apprenticeship system. It has certainly made it grow. In 2011-12, 503,000 people started apprenticeships, a rise of 79 per cent since 2009-10. More Britons now start apprenticeships each year than degrees.

Ministers are also supporting proposals to spread the model, allowing solicitors to train via apprenticeships, an idea currently being explored by BPP University College, a for-profit law school. This is part of a drive to open up more degree-level apprenticeship programmes.

But not all apprenticeship providers are Rolls-Royce. The growth of apprentices under the coalition has been boosted by the closure of other subsidised work-based training schemes, such as “Train to Gain”, designed to deliver training to over-25s.

This has changed the profile of the typical British apprentice. Since 2010, under-19 apprentices have risen by only eight per cent. Meanwhile, 45 to 59 year-old apprentices rose from 9,000 to 59,000 between 2009-10 and 2011-12. Over-60s grew from 400 starts to 3,500.

The expansion has also been accompanied by concerns around quality. As the number of apprenticeships has grown, some have proved to be of little value. Some could even be completed within a few months.

Ministers have acknowledged and responded to these problems over the past two years. In late 2011, Vince Cable, business secretary, introduced fresh incentive payments for small employers taking on apprentices aged 16-24.

Responding to the concerns on quality last year, ministers tightened regulation: the “frameworks” that set out the conditions apprenticeships must meet have been made more rigorous. All now have numeracy and literacy requirements and must last for at least one year.

Ministers are now changing tack on how to raise standards further. The “Richard Review” of apprenticeships, published late last year, recommended less prescription. Employers could be paid a subsidy to use as they wish, so long as their apprentices pass a competence test.

Matthew Hancock, skills minister, said: “We are only going to get equality of esteem where there is equality of quality.” Putting employers in charge, he hopes will give learners “confidence that their apprenticeships have labour market value”.

The coalition has turned the apprenticeship system into England’s main work-based training scheme. But it remains to be seen whether ministers can improve the quality of the workplace education on offer while the system handles so many people.

ONE-STOP SHOP FOR PLACES

Young people could be able to apply for apprenticeship positions through Ucas, the higher education admissions system, in the same way that they apply for places on university courses, under a plan developed by a Labour peer that has won the support of ministers.

The proposals have been put forward by Lord Adonis, former education minister and transport secretary, who said that Ucas, which is incorporated as an independent charity, would take on the role if “government and employers approached it to do so”.

He says that the proposal would “give a rocket boost to youth apprenticeships and enable school leavers to apply both for university and apprenticeship places in tandem . . . In a world of high student fees and lack of employability skills, many more young people might welcome the chance to weigh such options.”

David Willetts, universities minister, said: “This is a great idea. This would provide as clear and straightforward a route into apprenticeships as there is into university. It is just what young people need . . . I will be pursuing it in my next meeting with Ucas.”

Nick Linford, a further education consultant and publisher of FE Week, a newspaper for the skills sector, said: “This could kill two birds with one stone: apprentices need an effective vacancy-matching service, and Ucas’s brand would help raise the prestige of technical education.”

Ucas already offers a service, called Ucas Progress, which matches young people to local college courses. The plans would for the first time give it a role in matching prospective employees to employers.

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