Making apprenticeships work for the economy

Today is the start of National Apprenticeship Week; Catherine McKinnell MP explains why the Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement) Bill will help.

Today is the start of National Apprenticeship Week; here, Catherine McKinnell MP (Labour, Newcastle North) explains why the Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement) Bill will help young people find apprenticeships

The leader of the Conservative group on the Local Government Association, Buckinghamshire councillor David Shakespeare, is recently reported to have said that growing levels of unemployment in the North East could be solved in a simple way, suggesting that Northerners “may replace the Romanians in the cherry orchards… and that may be a good thing”. Another much better idea would be to drastically increase the availability of apprenticeships.

Good for both employers and employees, apprenticeships provide a structured career path, whilst also helping to develop the skills needed for UK Plc to better compete both nationally and internationally.

This Friday, during National Apprenticeships Week, will see the Second Reading of my Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement) Bill in Parliament.

The Bill, as part of the ‘Small Change, Big Difference’ campaign, is aimed at finding a cost-effective way of increasing the number of apprenticeship places available in the UK. If it makes the statute books, the Bill will introduce a requirement upon successful bidders for high-value public contracts to demonstrate a firm commitment to skills training and apprenticeships.

Guidance published by the Office of Government Commerce in April 2009 aimed to encourage departments to address skills and apprenticeship shortfall through their procurement policies. The Bill aims to build on those guidelines, ensuring that all companies ‘do their bit’ in return for winning a public sector contract.

The Bill has received support across the political spectrum from the TUC, UNITE, GMB, UNISON, UCATT and many other trade unions as well as a range of commercial organisations including the Federation of Small Businesses, the Electrical Contractors Association, The Cross-Industry Construction Apprenticeship Taskforce, the North East Chamber of Commerce, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the Federation of Master Builders and many more.

Star of the BBC’s “The Apprentice” Lord Sugar has also lent his public support to my Apprenticeships Bill.

Apprenticeships really do change lives across generations. I grew up with my grandfather’s construction firm, which provided high quality jobs and training for generations of skilled craftsmen after the war, whilst building housing across my home city of Newcastle. Apprenticeships remain as relevant today as they did then – something I experienced at first hand last week when I spent the day as a construction apprentice in my constituency.

Of course, apprenticeships aren’t restricted to the construction industry; they are relevant to all sectors and many different roles, including working in my Newcastle office where I have just just taken on an apprentice who will be completing a Business Administration qualification in my constituency office.

The commitment of the previous Labour government to expanding apprenticeships saw almost 280,000 places taken up in the UK in 2009/10 – an all-time high. The current government has also stated its ambition to build on this work, by ‘redirecting’ £150 million this year to ensure an additional 50,000 apprenticeship places, rising by a further 25,000 places by 2014/15. However, even this expansion will not be enough to meet demand – a fact highlighted when BT received 24,000 applications for only 221 places on its apprenticeship programme last year.

The Bill has received much support from John Hayes, the government’s apprenticeships minister. It is clear that he recognises the value of apprenticeships in the current economic times. And the government has been very vocal about the additional 75,000 apprenticeships it has pledged to provide over the next four years, yet in the last year alone Labour increased the number from a planned 200,000 to 279,000.

This government needs to recognise that a slowing of the growth in apprenticeships will lead to a skills shortage that will leave us lagging behind other countries when we eventually move back into growth, and leave our workforce without sufficient support to improve their skills.

If we’re going to fight the rising tide of unemployment, particularly amongst young people, every business has an obligation to do their bit. Support for the Apprenticeships Bill’s second reading on Friday would be a step in the right direction; or if, like me, you want to take on your own apprentice, get in touch with the National Apprenticeship Service who will be only too happy to help.

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