Thursday 5th January 2017
Kelly Tolhurst, a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood
Britain has a long and proud history of using specialist skills to create the very best products across our famed business sectors. That is no different in my own constituency of Rochester and Strood which is home to once major industries, such as ship-building in Chatham Dockyard and cement-making in Strood, both of which were renowned as being of excellent quality during their day. Whether it was a formal apprenticeship or the informal shadowing of technicians and craftsmen, those industries continued at high standards because of the quality of knowledge and teaching offered for those entering the workforce.
The mid-1960s to the mid-1970s saw the greatest levels of apprentice recruitment nationally, coinciding with some of our more recent industrial booms, and the value of apprenticeships was revitalised again in 1994. The apprenticeship system of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s provided the necessary preparation for young people to qualify in a number of profitable sectors. Those included craft trade (machinist, toolmaker, plumber, welder and mechanic, for example), or technician (quality inspector, draughtsman, planner and programmer, for instance), or technician engineer and even enabled a path to full chartered engineer registration (mechanical, electrical, aeronautical, chemical and manufacturing, for example). Although we have had our economic ups and downs since, apprenticeships have been key to the successful performance of those particular industries, helping to keep our economy afloat during rocky times.
Yet, there has been an unfortunate perception – assisted by past Labour policy-making – that apprenticeships are primarily used as last resort for boys or young men from less privileged backgrounds. There has become an unfair expectation that success for a child is built upon going to university, despite how up to 30 per cent of university students will either not complete their degrees or will achieve a degree that will not offer them the graduate-level jobs or earnings anticipated. Sadly, the bill for that falls firmly at the feet of the taxpayer. However, by changing mentalities around apprenticeships we can also increase their prestige and quality which, in turn, attracts a wider variety of applicant and opportunity.
Surprising to many is the fact that all those wanting to be lawyers, accountants, architects and doctors have to serve a formal apprenticeship. Moreover, we also have a need for adults to have better access to skilled jobs, should they change career or want to reach the next level within their profession. At the end of the day, it is down to personal choice and ensuring an individual’s options are both clear and informed.
I left school following my GCSEs at the age of 16 and worked my way up through roles which developed my trade and business skills, and by my early 20s I was leading a department within a medium-sized multinational. Looking at the intake of apprentices at BAE Systems and the students of Medway UTC in my constituency, I am positive that within a few years of hard work they will find similar opportunities to benefit both themselves and the UK’s productivity as quickly as many university graduates do, no matter of background.
By committing to spend £3.5 billion to fund three million quality apprenticeships by 2020, we can provide better opportunities for a huge number of young people and adults to learn the skills which will help better their lives and drive our economy. Similarly, by creating the right business policy environment for apprentices and business to flourish hand-in-hand is also vitally important. While many organisations like BAE Systems, National Rail and CGI already do a great deal to support apprenticeships, the Government’s introduction of the apprenticeship levy on large businesses from April 2017 will give a great investment boost to our specialist skills economy.
Skills and training are crucial to our economy as more skilled people in work means firstly cutting the cost of social failure, lowering levels of tax on the individual and increasing our competitiveness. Secondly, it gives everyone the chance to defy the circumstances of their birth, climb the ladder and change their lives for the better.
Ultimately, apprenticeships will drive innovation and industry and have come at a great time as we prepare to leave the European Union and boost the British brand at home and abroad.