Apprenticeships have had a higher profile in this year's election campaign than in any previous one. The Conservatives promise to increase the number of apprentices by 50% (to three million over the next five years plus an additional 50,000 paid for by fines levied on Deutsche Bank) while Labour offer an apprenticeship guarantee to anyone aged 18 who is suitably qualified. Apprenticeships have had an important role in our economy and society for more than 500 years because they ensure that new workers acquire the knowledge and craft associated with specific jobs. In doing so, they allow companies and public services to succeed. At a time when there is growing concern about growing skills shortages and sluggish productivity, we have no complaints that politicians are talking about apprenticeships.
However apprenticeships are not quite enough. Just look at this chart:
An apprenticeship is an education and training option which is legally restricted to people in full-time work. It is a job with training. In our economy, this covers around 40% of the adult population, leaving 25 million who aren’t eligible. For some, this doesn’t matter. Full-time students in university or sixth forms are developing their knowledge and craft in different ways. Likewise people claiming jobseekers allowance are offered help – with conditions –via the Work Programme. Many of those over the age of 65 will consider themselves retired though certainly not beyond making a contribution. This still leaves tens of millions of people who wouldn’t benefit directly if all our adult education and training eggs are put in the apprenticeship basket.
We have a society with a large number of part-time workers, a mass of self-employed people and a wide cohort of carers and parents. For the country to stay competitive and cohesive, we need people of all types to develop themselves and to keep learning. Apprenticeships are a good option for people at the start of a particular career who have a full-time job but there are risks in missing the bigger picture. Just as health policy covers public and community health as well as hospitals, so education and skills policy needs to look beyond full-time education and training for those in full-time work to consider opportunities for part-time workers, for those wishing to change career, for those returning to work when their children grow up or partners die and for those who need to work longer to make up for inadequate savings. Of course, we don't expect government to do everything in this space because responsibility falls on individuals, families and employers too, but it is right to ask future ministers to think through the consequences of the recent 24% cut to the adult further education budget. As part of this, they must consider incentives and penalties for workplace training, a conversion of student loans into a national learning account scheme, family learning, courses to improve mental health and to teach English, broadband access, part-time higher education. Apprenticeships need to be considered alongside these proposals, not instead of them.