National Apprenticeship Week: How the government can build the future

Steve Turner

Following the takeover of GKN by Melrose Industries in 2018, I met with directors to discuss establishing a long-term fund to support and encourage young people from minority groups and disadvantaged backgrounds – kids expelled from school or in trouble with the law, young people from inner city estates who’d never seen an engineering factory let alone thought of working in one – into taking up apprenticeships.

We’ve been working since then with the engineering skills body Enginuity on a ‘skills miner project’ to seek out and engage young people who will be the designers and engineers of the future – using innovative tools such as digital challenges and gaming platforms alongside an app to design and build an electric vehicle. The work Unite is engaged in with Melrose extends to companies across our nations, all of whom are at the centre of the UK’s manufacturing excellence – from automotive to aerospace, print to digital tech, steel and heavy engineering to science and design engineering – all aimed at triggering excitement about a career in advanced manufacturing.  

It will be this coming generation that will find the solutions to climate change, develop the green technologies necessary to transition our economy and discover solutions to challenges we haven’t even identified yet.

Given the demands on manufacturing to lead the economy through a necessary transition as we recover and rebuild from Covid-19, the coming week – National Apprenticeship Week – should be the time to move forward and finally address a skills crisis that’s plagued our economy for decades. Yet last month we saw the publication of the government’s further education ‘Skills for Jobs’ white paper. If ever there was a missed opportunity to address this crisis, providing the skills and retraining we need for the future, it was this. However, perhaps not surprisingly given the make-up of the current government, unions – which have a very proud track record delivering high-quality apprenticeships – are being excluded. 

During the pandemic, Unite has worked tirelessly with our shop stewards and officers protecting our apprentices from lay-off and redundancy as a central plank of our fight to save jobs. It costs over £80,000 to train an engineering apprentice, hundreds of thousands to develop specialist lifetime skills in advanced manufacturing. That’s a huge investment in the future for any company to make and when the pandemic is over and the economy starts to pick up, if skilled workers, apprentices and trainees have been laid off, it will simply compound that serious skills shortage and our ability to rebound. Contrary to government soundbites and rhetoric, a failure to address skills needs will drive a coach and horses through our capacity to ‘level up’, ‘build back better’ and ‘transition our economy’ to meet the challenges of the future, including the climate emergency.

Unite is a key player in the Manufacturing Skills Alliance, working with major employer organisations, and have consistently demanded that the government steps in to ensure no apprentice is laid off during the pandemic. Struggling companies need to be confident about long-term government support for manufacturing if we’re to not only prevent wide-scale apprentice lay-offs but maintain a yearly new intake through this period. Together with industry, we rightly demand the Chancellor release the £3bn of apprenticeship levy funds locked away in the Treasury’s coffers and put it to practical use at this time of national need.

So, I say again to Rishi Sunak, find the key to that pot, get the cash working and give our young people and planet hope of a brighter tomorrow. Act now to address your own government figures, which show a 60% decline in apprenticeship starts between May 2019-20. Intermediate level starts fell by 74% and those aged under 19 starting an apprenticeship at this level have fallen by a staggering 83%.

World-class, quality apprenticeships, provided by the likes of BMW, Toyota, BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and the now threatened GKN, aren’t just providing training on the job. They offer so much more and they do so because they work with us to develop and deliver them. With our track record, it’s incredible to believe that successive governments have excluded us at both a national and a local level from the apprenticeship programme. Thousands of our members and shop stewards are directly responsible for providing it!

To reset the clock and address this in the national interest, we now need a National Manufacturing Skills Taskforce to bring together employers, skills bodies and unions to ensure programmes, qualifications and lifetime training opportunities meet employer, individual and industry needs. This is normal business in so many countries, who proudly work together with the trade unions on skills, learning and apprenticeships. Germany, for example, has a tripartite system of federal government, unions and employers, and it shines brightly as an example to the world. Why can’t the UK?

Until the late 1970s, unions were directly involved at a local and national level. It was the Thatcher government that scrapped joint training boards, as part of the same anti-union ideological dogma that drove the destruction of key industries and our industrial heartlands. Our government chooses to promote the cheap and cheerful approach, where checkout staff and sandwich makers are told they can do a three-month apprenticeship. These are important, valued jobs that require proper training, of course, but they aren’t good-quality apprenticeships. Being brutal, in so many cases they not only betray and fail our young people but belittle the very term apprenticeship, being little more that rehashed ‘youth opportunity schemes’ of that same Thatcher government of the 1980s.

The theme of this National Apprenticeship Week is ‘Build the Future’. It’s time the government understood that only by putting manufacturing centre stage, releasing funds supposedly raised to support apprenticeships, and giving the unions a seat at the table of the so-called ‘skills revolution’ will it actually deliver on the rhetoric.

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