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The world of apprenticeships according to Lord Digby Jones

31 March 2014 #Aftermarket #Bus and Coach #Features & Interviews #Policy #Trailer #Truck #Van

Apprenticeships are going strong and with more backing than ever from government and business their contribution to industry and the wider economy is set to increase even further.

Transport News Brief talked Lord Digby Jones, a standard-bearer for the vocational training, to find out how he thinks all-things-apprentice are shaping up.


For years they were erroneously perceived as a dusty relic of Victorian times and unfit for the modern world, but apprenticeships are now back on the agenda with a vengeance.

The world once seemed eager to send as many teenagers to university as possible, without spending too much time worrying about whether there would be any jobs for them when they graduated, but now the importance and value of structured vocational training is much better recognised.

Businesses are embracing apprenticeships with alacrity too, with DAF and Ford among those on the list of top 100 companies committed to schemes as compiled by the National Apprenticeship Service.

Recent research has shown that by the end of his or her third year an apprentice can generate a return on investment of between 150% and 300%. In other words, for every £1.00 a firm invests it will see a return of between £1.50 and £3.00.

A key advocate of the value of apprenticeships is former Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, Lord Digby Jones. Minister of State for UK Trade and Investment in the last Labour government – though not a Labour Party member – today he is among other things Chairman of Triumph Motorcycles and has acted as unpaid UK Skills Envoy.

“If you are going to create a value-added society then you need skilled labour and apprenticeships enable businesses to grow their own,” he says. “I’m pleased to see that there were more apprenticeship starts in September 2013 than there were in September 2012 and it is worth noting that there are more young people beginning apprenticeships now than there are starting at university.”

He points out that BAE Systems is training more people now than it has done for the past 30 or 40 years. Though best-known as a defence contractor, the global giant also produces the HybriDrive diesel-electric hybrid system for city buses fitted by ADL among others.

“It’s also good to see that over the past six or seven years the political class has finally got it and that a realisation that apprenticeships matter straddles party politics,” he comments.

Challenges remain however he adds, not the least of them being the ability of small businesses in particular to organise apprenticeship programmes and source the funding they require.

This is where government support is needed Lord Jones believes. As a consequence he welcomes the recent Budget announcement that £170m of additional funding is to be made available in 2014/15 and 2015/16 for businesses with fewer than 50 employees to encourage them to take on apprentices.

He would like to go much further however, arguing that there is a case for raising the top rate of income tax from 45% to 50% with the revenue generated by the increase ring-fenced and used to fund apprenticeship training.

Making it clear that the money raised would be used for this purpose and no other would neatly defuse many of the objections to a 50% rate says Lord Jones.

He concedes however that such a move would be unpopular with the Treasury which dislikes being restricted in this way. “It always wants complete control,” he remarks.

Some of that funding could go towards supporting apprenticeships for adults. Little or no aid is available for apprenticeships once people have reached the age of 24.

“My dad only ever had two jobs but times have changed,” he observes. Many people now pursue several careers in a long working life and need periodic re-skilling.

“One-third of the girls born today and one-quarter of the boys will still be alive in 100 years time and people will be working until they’re 80,” he points out.

That is because society cannot afford to end up looking after individuals and paying them pensions for longer than they contribute to public funds through their taxes. “Do that and you end up in the situation Greece got itself into,” he remarks.

Lord Jones believes that one of the biggest problems with apprenticeships is the often-poor level of literacy and numeracy among 16-year-old school leavers. “It is an absolute disgrace that after 11 years of full-time education so many of them cannot read, write and add up properly,” he states.

As a consequence they have to take remedial training before they can take full advantage of the opportunities an apprenticeship offers them; time that would be better spent on the vocational training they are supposed to be embarking on.

At least the vocational training they receive is to a high standard these days. Lord Jones believes that the split between on-the-job training and college attendance is about right although he believes it could make sense for more of the college courses to be held in the workplace rather than in a classroom elsewhere.

He is pleased to see that the qualifications apprentices attain are now more widely understood and recognised than they used to be. “That certainly wasn’t the case 15 years ago,” he says.

One way in which apprenticeships could be supported he suggests would be for public sector bodies to insist that suppliers produce comprehensive details of their training arrangements when tendering to supply goods or services.

“The attitude of the public sector should be; ‘I like your products, I like your quality, I like your prices; but how do you skill your people?'”

What he has in mind is the partnerships many leading private sector manufacturers enter into with their most important suppliers with the former taking a keen interest in the training arrangements put into place by the latter. A company committed to training is likely to produce quality, innovative products.

Does he believe that in embracing vocational training the UK is at last learning from Germany where such training is highly regarded? That is true to some extent, he believes, but adds that the situation in Germany is by no means ideal.

“Their technical colleges are excellent and the commitment of their Mittelstand companies (small- to medium-size businesses) to training is a great example to us all – but there is not a single German university among the top 50 worldwide.”

The UK boasts seven; so in that respect perhaps Germany could learn from us.

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