Gordon Birtwistle MP writes… Careers advice should reflect the value of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are just a valuable as degrees – careers advice is vital to ensure this message is heard.

As Government Apprenticeship Ambassador to Business, my job is to advocate and promote apprenticeships to businesses, young people and schools across the country; working closely with the National Apprenticeship Service and BIS.

Over the next two years (and in the upcoming months) I will be visiting more schools, training providers, businesses including small and medium enterprises and apprentices to hear from a range of people and to establish how the Government can improve on apprenticeships.

So far we have been up and down the country looking at fantastic schemes at Nissan, Rolls Royce, British Airways, Heathrow, KMF, Barclays, Prysmian Cables, Metroline, Family Mosaic, Aston Martin and many more. I have met with hundreds of companies across various industries and there seems to be a major sticking point which has come up time and time again.

Firstly, we have found that parents and teachers are not giving apprenticeships enough credit and in some cases are discouraging young people from doing them. There is a stigma in our society, created by Tony Blair’s Labour Government, that degrees are the only way to get far in life and every young person should aspire to go to University. That convinced parents that if you haven’t been to university you have failed. Believe me, if you haven’t been to university you certainly have not failed and we have to change that idea among parents.

At the same time, there are many unemployed graduates yet we have a huge skills shortage in engineering and the manufacturing sector. This is because not enough young people are being attracted to this industry which is something else we are working on; to make engineering attractive and remove the stereotype of an engineer as ‘a man in overalls’. I believe that the best way of reaching out to people is for each of us to become an apprenticeship ambassador including the shining examples of successful apprentices and to go in to schools, make use of social media and spread this message to people. It is only then we will see any sort of attitude shift.

The sticking point with careers advice is that there is a lack of it. Most schools which give careers advice do it internally – assigning teachers to give it when most of them have only ever been teachers. We need independent careers advisors from companies like Aston Martin to go into schools and inform young people about the opportunities and different sectors there are out there. An example of this is Lesley Burrows from Burnley, who set up the Job Junction which is a virtual job centre, informing Burnley school students about the jobs and industries available in Burnley so that young people know about all the different types of jobs and vacancies there are in their local area.

In my view, Apprenticeships are the way forward. They provide on-the-job training and offer a wage with a career at the end of it. There are a lot of young people under pressure to go to university and study subjects for which there is a shortage of jobs. I have discovered a lot on my apprentice journey so far and have met some incredible young people. I have been working hard to try to convince Lord Tony Hall at the BBC to produce a TV programme called the ‘real apprentice’ in order for the nation to witness that apprentices are real assets to companies and the opportunities there are out there. I write a monthly report to the Prime Minister and inform senior colleagues of my findings so now I am keen to share them through Lib Dem Voice to give apprentices a voice for they are our nation’s best kept secret, and I want to start telling it.

* Gordon Birtwistle is Member of Parliament for Burnley, Chair of Lib Dem Parliamentary Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, co-founder of the Lib Dem Campaign for Manufacturing and and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Apprenticeships.

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  • I fear you are ploughing a lonely furrow here judging by the lack of comments.

    But …. please carry on. I absolutely agree with you that getting apprenticeships right is vital for the future. I’m sure you are right about the stigma attaching to anything that’s not a university degree although less sure that it can be laid entirely at Blair’s door. He merely continued a dishonourable practice of ignoring any other possibilities for post-school education and training that dates back to at least mid Victorian times and probably earlier.

    This missing factor I suggest is a framework for apprenticeships that is sufficiently simple that parents, teachers and young people alike will be able to navigate it just as they do their choice of university at present. This means, inter alia, courses involving different levels and types of ability that are tough to get onto and tough to complete. Because a menu of apprenticeships of different levels of ambition and difficulty would be available, schools and parents alike would have a clear and achievable target to work towards.

    A useful model to look to is the way that vocational training is organised for accountants. There are many options for a would-be accountant to choose between ranging from high level, academically-demanding courses to less academic and more practical courses that train vast numbers for work in companies and professional firms at levels commensurate with their ability and ambition. And they do it very cheaply from government’s point of view with much of the cost picked up by industry.

  • I often think lack of comments on LDV is a sign that the bulk of the posters are in agreement with the original post.

    I agree in general, particularly in a time when there is massive oversupply of graduates.

    However I would still not move away from the idea that academically very strong working class kids “should” be going to university in most cases. I saw a lot derailed or lose a couple of years by the idea that all courses and life paths are equally good for all people.

  • Peter Cobrin 6th Dec '13 - 10:54pm

    Don’t tell us! Tell your colleagues who inhabit the DfE whose policies on careers guidance enjoy condemnation from every side — and deservedly so. Come on Gordon!! Tell them how it is.

  • Apprenticeships aren’t as good value as degrees because graduates tend to earn more over a lifetime. Bizarre to assert they are. What apprenticeships offer is a good way to ensure quality training for non-graduate based sectors, that typically require a less academic skill set. Sell them as that.

    But you also need to deal with the huge class based issues, nobody is targeting apprenticeships at the sons and daughters of the middle classes, rather they are seen as being directed at poorer sectors of society. By encouraging these people to take up apprenticeships you direct them into generally lower paying sectors, what you should be doing, if you want a more equal society, is getting more middle class kids into apprenticeships and more working class kids into university. Not the other way around.

  • @g – People who graduated a long time ago are in an age cohort where their qualifications are rarer and cut more ice, regardless of subject, and have earned more over their lifetimes – I am not so sure this will be true for people entering university now except for vocational degrees such as medicine, computing etc and those from the top half-dozen universities (this is without asking the question of what a person capable of getting into such a university would achieve without it). But yes, class of parents should have nothing to do with it.

  • Richard S, it has been true since the dawn of universities, it may not be true forever, but there is a wealth of prior evidence to suggest that there is no reason to believe the current cohort of grads won’t earn more than their non-grad peers.

    Also, do I detect hints of misplaced elitism in your comments about ‘top half-dozen’ universities?

    The universities whose grads earn the best are all based in London, and the top ten doesn’t have any other other than Cambridge and Oxford.

    Some of those in that list aren’t even ranked top 20 in the UK, not that these rankings are that helpful in general.

    Aside from the premium commanded by Oxbridge (itself complicated by the massive over representation of the privately educated and wealthy) it seems graduates who tend to work in London tend to earn more than those who do not. This isn’t necessarily to do with the quality of their education, so much as the wider economy.

  • Incidentally, further to my last comment, if, as Richard S wishes, then there is no graduate premium in the future, then the financing of tuition fees falls down a very deep, very dark and very devastating hole that will cause immense damage to the HE sector.

  • It’s not “as I wish”. I get CVs from graduates all the time applying to do a non-graduate job with me who have a couple of years of bar work on their CV after university and presumably massive debts. Unless they want to do a specific job which requires a specific degree then I wouldn’t advise the majority of teenagers to go, because a degree as a general badge of employability and passport into the middle-classes it doesn’t cut it anyway anymore.

    The average salary may be higher for graduates, but that still doesn’t answer the question of to what extent the university is putting its brand on what is there already, and whether that person could have achieved anyway without the university. Comparing salaries of those able to go to university with those unable is not a relevant comparison. The appropriate comparison is with those who could have gone but chose not too:

    My own first job after university was working for someone who had left the top stream at my school at 16 and started his own IT business. I don’t see why it is rational to think my computing degree should be worth more than the 5 years experience he had in the industry – although I had other (non-financially) worthwhile experiences at university besides job preparation.

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