Apprenticeships. Where do I start? The subject of much debate at present!

Engage_103-1030x687The last election saw the machismo of numbers- who could come up with the biggest number of pledged apprenticeships. 1 million? 2 million? Eventually, we hit the 3 million figure!

As Wales debates its approach to Apprenticeships, here is an extract from a speech I delivered at the Public Forum for Wales event on Apprenticeships in Cardiff in February 2016.

When we talk about apprenticeships, we often point to the famous success stories…Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver, Alexander McQueen.  We can go back further ……. Henry Ford, Vincent Van Gough.

But to illustrate my points today, I want to use the example of a failed apprentice….Elvis Presley!  Elvis started as an an electrical apprentice but he didn’t complete his apprenticeship.  I have this image of his assessor …… in Tupelo Training ….. worried about The King of Rock n Roll dropping out and affecting successful completion rates.  Instead, Elvis moved into a career in music and the rest, as they say, is history.  So at this watershed moment after consultation on apprenticeships, are we heading for Heartbreak Hotel or Viva Las Cymru? And before you say anything, I am not trying to win a bet on how many Elvis songs I can get into this speech!

We have seen so much political posturing on apprenticeships in recent months.  Also, we have the furore around the levy and so many unanswered questions.  But as someone once said ….. “we are all faced with a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as impossible situations”.  And what an opportunity we have in Wales to get this right!  Yes ladies and gentlemen …… IT’s NOW OR NEVER!

So who should control the shape of apprenticeships? Qualifications Wales? Employers?  Well it is absolutely essential that employers have an input into shaping apprenticeship programmes …. that could be done through employer panels overseen by Qualifications Wales. But If this is the case, Qualifications Wales would need to demonstrate that they are fully in touch with the needs of employers……and critically, not just large employers but SMEs too.

And let’s remember, the quality of outcomes in Wales is pretty good through our current system compared with England.  84% success rate in Wales compared to 69% in England.  We should be proud of that and ensure that future models maintain rigour. We have worked hard to ensure this performance amongst our current network of providers and I suppose their are some SUSPICIOUS MINDS, concerned that if we don’t have a holistic national oversight of apprenticeships…. a) quality and b) the portability of apprenticeships programmes to allow movement between employers and nations may be compromised.

Here’s an easy one ….. should there be proxies for essential skills? Absolutely….nothing frustrates an apprentice more than if they are required to cover work in literacy and numeracy that they have already achieved.  Should all apprenticeships be available ONLY at level 3 or above?  We need to be careful here!  My next comment may upset some people but let me brutally honest ….. I would love Welsh Government and all providers to focus completely on level 3 apprenticeships ….if  that meant  that all 16 year olds were leaving our schools.  After twelve years of full time education with their level two threshold including English and Maths!  But as we know that is not the case.

And let’s not forget, for some learners, a level 2 apprenticeship is absolutely right for them.  And for some employment routes, a level 2 apprenticeship would make that learner occupationally competent to do the job required.  And these level 2 apprentices are still contributing to the 1.1 billion that apprenticeships contribute to the Welsh economy.   We also need to be mindful, that for some routes eg Brickwork, an apprentice cannot enter at level 3 unless they have proved competence at level 2.  If we simply use a blunt instrument  of moving level 2 funding to level 3, i’ m not convinced that will work.   However, it might be possible to look at some sort of Pre Apprenticeship programme, perhaps multi-disciplinary …. As long as it enables clear progression routes.

And let’s beware a return to a purely narrow range of occupationally specific routes.  We need competent leaders and managers….as well as Engineers!  Whatever the outcome of consultation, all new frameworks should ensure that apprentices are learning new skills and not just gaining recognition for jobs they have been doing for some time.

And should we grade apprenticeships? We need to develop our own system in Wales but we must be mindful developments over the border to ensure we are not short changing Welsh apprentices and Welsh employers.  An S level apprenticeship? Might that help us further in the recognition of apprenticeships ?

But I suppose apprenticeships aren’t for everyone ….. even Elvis.  And just imagine …. if Elvis had completed his apprenticeship…..he might have become an electrician and not a singer.  And Wales would never have been the home of the Porthcawl Elvis festival.

Thank you very much!

Simon Pirotte