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To pre or not to pre…

11 March 2015

National Apprenticeship Week is upon us. It’s always welcome to see apprentices getting the prominence and promotion that they deserve. It’s not the first time in this election campaign that apprentices have been mentioned, and it won’t be the last. Politicians of all colours have been advocating apprenticeships and the impact they have on the economy. This is especially welcome. But at the same time they’ve been announcing targets of the ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships in the future. Here’s the issue though. What colleges across the country are telling us is that getting apprenticeship places isn’t the main problem. Instead, it’s the quality of the applicants. What cannot be forgotten is that apprentices are employees. Therefore businesses and organisations expect a certain level of knowledge, understanding and behaviour. These ‘soft skills’, such as communication, team work and time management, are worth around £88 billion to the UK’s economy, according to research from McDonald’s. This is where the political pledges of more and more apprenticeships are likely to come unstuck. One of our manifesto asks highlights this problem. We believe that young people need to be properly prepared for apprenticeships, and a new pre-apprenticeship offer for 16 to 24-year-olds should be introduced. This would include traineeships, but expand the system to provide young people with a range of flexible provision to gain the soft skills, work experience and vocational elements that are needed. One of the fundamental building blocks of a sustainable economic recovery is to ensure everyone has a well-rounded mix of employability skills. Colleges are well-placed to equip people for the workplace with expert teachers, industry-standard facilities and a close ongoing relationship with local employers of all sizes. This is why our members should be central to the pre-apprenticeship offer. At the same time, though, participation in any form of apprenticeship by 16 to 19-year-olds remains low. We need to ensure that young people are offered impartial information about the options available for them when they leave education. If, as a country, we are going to increase the number of young people opting for professional and technical education and choosing apprenticeships then we must improve careers education in schools, and develop a careers hub in each area. A strong pre-apprenticeship, based on the skills and workplace experience needed for a first job, is the perfect way we can support young people. Perhaps we should stop talking numbers, and start on solutions. Teresa Frith is the Senior Skills Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges.