How well does Boris do on apprenticeships?

The Green Party’s Darren Johnson AM argues that apprenticeships need to be rehauled, and that London could show the rest of the country how to do it.


Darren Johnson AM represents the Green Party in the London Assembly

I completely support the Mayor of London’s ambition to see more businesses taking on apprentices. They can help get young people into jobs and create a more skilled workforce. As the mayor has said, they are “key to the future prosperity of the capital”.

But his apprenticeship programme isn’t necessarily delivering on these aims.

A key plank of the mayor’s argument has been that it helps young people. He has talked about “fighting youth unemployment” with his apprenticeship scheme. In 2010 he warned that “young Londoners are in danger of losing out as the economy recovers unless more apprenticeship opportunities are provided for them”.

But I have uncovered that many of the apprentices in the organisations that the mayor is actually in charge of aren’t that young at all.

The mayor is responsible for the Greater London Authority, Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Service, the London Fire Brigade and the soon-to-be-defunct London Development Agency.

In 2009/10, the first year of his programme, 60 per cent of the apprentices in these organisations were over the age of 25, and last year 48 per cent were over 25. Youth unemployment is measured for people aged 16 to 24 years old.

When I asked the mayor about this he blamed government funding and promised “an appropriate mix of apprenticeships” in the future. I intend to ask him what mix is appropriate if the aim really is to tackle youth unemployment.

The mayor’s other aim is to improve skills and tackle the low status of vocational education. The “future prosperity” of the capital and the country depends on more people being helped into more skilled jobs, and getting better at them through continued learning opportunities. So how do the mayor’s apprenticeships measure up?

One key component is off-the-job learning, and the government issued guidance last year recommending that apprentices get at least 100 hours per year.

The IPPR published a detailed study rethinking apprenticeships last year which concluded that this should be at least 200 hours. It also pointed out that in sectors where apprenticeships are well regarded it is often much higher. For example, apprentice engineers typically spend around 500 hours a year learning off the job.

I obtained information (here and here) revealing a mixed picture in the mayor’s backyard over the past two years, before the government issued its guidance.

Young apprentices in the London Fire Brigade got 56 hours off-the-job learning, while adult apprentices got none. Apprentices in the police service got between one and five half day workshops.

Young apprentices in the Greater London Authority appeared to fare better with 124 hours of “off the job GLA training, off the job outsource training and group network events”.

Lucky transport apprentices got an average of over 600 hours a year.

The IPPR also recommended that more apprenticeships should be offered for higher skilled positions.

Over half of all engineering apprenticeships are offered for advanced and higher level positions, which are key to our future prosperity, but this drops to 13 per cent for the hospitality industry. The IPPR suggest that the intermediate level should be renamed to something like Scotland’s “skill seeker” or Australia’s “traineeship”, and that we need a renewed focus further up the skill chain.

I asked the mayor about this as well.

All of the apprentices in the Greater London Authority and the London Development Agency were at the intermediate level. But completely against the national trend, 87 per cent of fire brigade apprentices, 83 per cent of police service apprentices and 77 per cent of transport apprentices were in advanced or higher level positions.

Nationally, 32 per cent of apprentices were advanced or higher level (source). The government has responded by allocating £25m to support up to 10,000 advanced and higher level apprenticeships.

But should the state keep subsidising this, or should we switch to a model like Germany – well known for its skilled workforce – where employers are required to do this as a matter of course?

If apprenticeships are key to our future prosperity, should the mayor not find the money for quality apprenticeships in his own budgets just as he would find the money for any other essential workforce requirements?

The government needs to overhaul and regulate the apprenticeship system if it is to be a genuine answer to youth unemployment and the skills gaps. The mayor can start with his own apprentices.

See also:

Osborne’s refusal to increase demand leaves young unemployed without hope – Tony Dolphin, November 14th 2011

Boris can take the lead on entry-level jobs for the young unemployed – Darren Johnson AM, July 14th 2011

Making apprenticeships work for the economy – Catherine McKinnell MP, February 7th 2011

Gove is the roadblock to Burnham’s calls of aspiration, aspiration, aspiration – Alex Hern, September 29th 2011

Devolved nations call for Osborne to boost growth – Ed Jacobs, November 29th 2011

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