Gordon Birtwistle’s apprenticeships report for January

I have had a busy start to the year promoting apprenticeships and meeting with businesses; I thought I would share some of my findings with Lib Dem Voice.

I’ve been on some fantastic visits over the past month or two, seeing some truly inspirational outfits offering apprenticeships. In December I visited Gloucestershire Engineering Training centre in Steve Webb’s constituency. The GET provides training in mechanical, electrical and electronic engineering disciplines. I met 88 first year apprentices, including Lib Dem member Eva Fielding, one of three female engineers on the programme. The MD communicated her primary concerns; namely costings and encouraging local businesses to take on an apprentice.

In January I visited Aston Martin’s site. This top-end car manufacturer produces 4000 vehicles per year and has a technical academy to facilitate skills training; so far they have recruited 29 apprentices. We discussed a lack of recognised qualifications in science and engineering and how to secure more support for schools to ensure work experience is offered to students.

I also visited one of the leading UK energy suppliers, EON UK. The EON Apprenticeship Academy is offering innovative technical training programmes for the downstream utility, manufacturing and heavy industry sectors. They currently employ 150 engineering staff onsite with 20 apprentices enrolled on to a ‘generation programme’ where they undertake a multi-skilled apprenticeship. We saw how they produce electricity- burning coal at extreme temperatures. It certainly warmed us up on a chilly wintry day! Alongside tackling the shortage of engineers, EON are working with schools, colleges and universities to help raise the visibility of careers in engineering and the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths as key subjects in education.

Highlight of the month was my visit to MBDA in Lostock where I was met with a group of very impressive apprentices. They explained to us the role of MBDA and gave a tour of the factory where we were shown how missiles were made; such incredible technology involved. An astonishing 60% of the apprentices in the company are female; all of whom were totally committed to advanced manufacturing and the company.

Finally, I visited Crossrail’s TUCA (The Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy) in Ilford with my fellow colleague Ian Swales. A joint partnership between Crossrail and CITB, the visit explored how TUCA will deliver training to 10,000 learners in its lifetime, showing how the construction sector is using flagship infrastructure projects such as Crossrail to leave a skills legacy for the future.

Over the past month, I have had positive responses to apprenticeships and am starting to see a slight shift in mood towards them. However there is plenty more to be done, especially in schools and on careers advice. We must engage young people and make them aware of the opportunities out there, eliminating this stigma of failure for not opting for the ‘normal’ university route. If I had my time again, I would be desperate to get onto a programme with one of the highly established companies above.

* 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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  • Peter Hatfield 11th Feb '14 - 2:34pm

    Good to see a hard working MP doing some positive work and research for our future workforce. Especially pleased with the view to identify qualifications in the sciences… Well done.

  • This is most encouraging and there does seem to be a slight but positive shift in the mood.

    As someone who went through the ‘normal’ university route, I remember that the choices available were clear because there was a well structured system that everyone understood rather well – myself, my parents and my teachers.

    Yet when it comes to apprenticeships we don’t yet have anything comparable. Yes, there has been an alphabet soup of initiatives over the years but they have never really added up to a coherent system and that’s a serious omission. What successive governments have done is to try and force an ever increasing percentage through the university route (Blair wanted it to be 50%) in the absence of any alternative. The result is that most discussions of post-school training routinely default to talking of university or something very like it very quickly and the majority are again side-lined.

    It has been like this for at least 150 years despite any number of studies showing that this is pre-eminently where we fall down against competitors like Germany. So, we still, perfectly accurately, describe university as the ‘normal’ route even though this leaves out the great majority for whom it is not an achievable or sensible aspiration.

    For those who can reasonably aspire to university there is a clear objective for their school studies; there is nothing like that for the majority who can’t so aspire. Could this perhaps be part of the reason so many are turned off school?
    Then there is continuing mismatch of jobs and skills (a disastrous market failure to put it in those terms) that costs both individuals and the country dearly.

    So I propose we need an overarching system which would accommodate apprenticeships of all sorts within a common framework to cover every aspect including entry qualifications (which would provide an objective for school studies) and funding. It must be easy to understand for all concerned and should provide qualifications that are world class – and recognised globally. And it should be constructed in such a way that funding automatically follows demand so that, for instance, when changes in the economy create new requirements then (newly) skilled labour flows towards those opportunities. That’s actually not difficult to achieve.

    This is a subject where Lib Dems ought to make the running. Here’s hoping.

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