‘The biggest battle in all of this is intellectual snobbery’ - Apprenticeships and Skills Minister
Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills Anne Milton MP was joined by Chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon MP at a fringe meeting hosted by the Apprenticeships Forum at the Conservative party conference.
The Apprenticeship Forum events at Conservative party conference saw politicians join business representatives, training providers and other stakeholders in the skills sector to discuss reducing the UK skills shortage. The 2018 partners of the forum were the Institution of Engineering and Technology, The Sir Robert McAlpine company, Raytheon, and World Skills UK.
Opening the Apprenticeship Forum fringe meeting Sebastian Whale, Political Editor of the House Magazine said he was delighted to be joined by two leading lights in the Conservative party, particularly on this agenda.
Robert Halfon, the Education Select Committee said: “I have always believed that this is perhaps one of the most important issues, apprenticeships and skills, facing our nation.”
The MP said that the seriousness of the issue is highlighted by recent KPMG figures that revealed up to 28% of jobs for young people in the UK will be lost to automation.
He explained that these numbers become even more alarming when looking at who in society will be most affected.
“The disadvantaged are going to be most hit by the march of the robots and the arrival of automation.”
Building on this he was pleased that 25% of apprenticeships come from the lowest income areas and hoped to increase participation in these schemes by the government introducing the 2017 Conservative manifesto pledge on free bus travel for apprentices.
It is for this reason that he was particularly pleased that 25% of apprenticeships come from the lowest income areas. Mr Halfon said this percentage should only increase if the Government introduces the free bus travel for apprentices – as pledged in the 2017 Conservative manifesto.
Robert Halfon also called for a radical reform to skills and careers advice for young people, suggesting that the National Apprenticeships service, the Careers Enterprise Council and the National Careers Service should all be merged into one new body called the National Skills Service. He said that this organisation could go into every school and talk to young people about skills and careers as well as work experience.
Mr Halfon was clear that despite criticisms of the Apprenticeship Levy, the scheme showed that the Government and the Treasury were prepared to take the skills agenda seriously.
Anne Milton said that in her experience businesses are no longer complaining about the levy and now just, “want it to work well for them.”
She welcomed the newly announced policy in the Chancellor's conference speech that the government will increase the amount of a company’s apprenticeship levy that can be transferred to smaller firms in their supply chain to 25%. The minister said she was “not wedded” to 25%, leaving open the possibility of this increasing further.
Robert Halfon emphasised that the introduction of degree apprenticeships was critical to overcoming the ‘prestige issue’ that plagued apprenticeships.
The Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills Anne Milton shared Robert Halfon’s view of these programmes and added:
“There’s not a lot not to like about doing a degree apprenticeship to be absolutely honest...no tuition fees, you’re earning some money, you’ve got work experience and you come out ahead of those who have left university doing a traditional degree.”
She said that some large employers had complained that while young graduates had “lots of knowledge”, they were often lacking in the required workplace skills – skills that can take up to two years to acquire. However, the minster explained, “if you do a degree apprenticeship, you don’t have that problem.”
In terms of tackling the perception of apprenticeship schemes and boosting take-up rates Anne Milton said: “I think probably the biggest battle in all of this is ‘intellectual snobbery’, for want of a better word.”
She added that the biggest influences on young people are often their parents who are difficult to reach and still need to be convinced about the parity between the two routes.
In a wide-ranging question and answer session both panellists were asked about the Conservative pledge for three million apprenticeship starts by 2020.
Robert Halfon was not opposed to it but admitted he had “no idea why the figure was chosen” and Anne Milton expressed reservations about targets more generally, saying: “I think it’s always a mistake, because you can get anything if you sacrifice quality.”
She clarified that quality was more important in her view, saying, “Of course, I want to see [the number of apprenticeships] go up, but what I want is the system operating well and keeping that ring on quality".
The Chief Executive of WorldSkills UK, Dr Neil Bentley, pressed for better international benchmarks to rate UK skills alongside other countries.
David Marriott, UK Business Operations Manager at Raytheon raised concerns about the time it takes to complete an apprenticeship enrolment with many now taking up to 100 days or longer to set up. He also called for additional resources for companies that are non-levy payers but still wanted to take part in the scheme.
The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Public Affairs Manager Robert Beahan asked how young people can be encouraged into the engineering sector.
Robert Halfon said the importance of all STEM subjects cannot be underestimated and Anne Milton agreed it was important to challenge the perception of engineering as “more than hard hats and dirty overalls”.
She concluded: “We all have a responsibility and an opportunity to change perceptions for what engineering is about.”
Colin Clark, MP for Gordon in Aberdeenshire, addressed the Apprenticeship Forum reception and spoke about his business career before entering politics. Like many in this sector he had some concerns about the Apprenticeship Levy:
“There is a lack of transparency unfortunately about the Apprenticeship Levy in Scotland. I would ask the Scottish Government to remember that the people who are contributing to it have to really see the net result.”
He called for a simplification of the apprenticeship system, to improving outcomes for apprentices and boosting the 30% retention rates for some schemes.