25 January 2016
Apprenticeships – and why you don’t have to go to University to succeed

As I’ve written here before, the Prime Minister asked me last year to be his Apprenticeships Adviser. I hope I will be forgiven, but I wish to write about the apprenticeship agenda again.

I’ll admit that when the Prime Minister asks you to do a job, it is very difficult to say no. Cynicism aside, everyone who gets into politics does so because they want to help. On a smaller or larger scale, we all want to change things for the better. We’re all looking for an opportunity to play a part, so it is a great honour that cannot be turned down when you’re given a chance. But I can be honest and say that I am truly glad to have been asked to do this, because increasing our nation’s skills base is at the core of our Government’s, and our party’s, One Nation ideal.

The previous Labour Government saw university education as a single silver bullet to expand opportunity and increase social mobility. They saw the increased earnings that graduates receive over their lifetimes, and sought to push everyone towards this route.

I am glad that the current Government has uncapped student numbers to allow anyone who wants to go to university to do so, but the current push to increase apprenticeships is just as important. It is lazy thinking to assume that going through the university system is the best option for everyone, and for every career. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for providing the next generation with the skills to succeed, or for ensuring that businesses can fill the skilled positions they require.

Teachers, having gone through a traditional academic background and university themselves, are naturally most comfortable with systems they are most familiar with. This can influence their expectations and advice to their pupils. We end up with an almost pavlovian response from students where they end up on the UCAS website, because their teachers expect it and all their friends are doing it, before they’ve even properly considered the full spectrum of opportunity.

We should not allow the increasing number of students going to university over the last 20 years to damage the reputation of alternative options, leaving them to be seen as second choices. In reality, for many there is simply no better option.

You get in at the ground floor of a company, you learn how to be part of a business, how to contribute, you get good training and you earn a wage for your efforts. You’re then four or five years ahead of a graduate, already knowledgeable about the role and the business, and you’ve been earning all the while. For too long, young people have been asked to choose between earning or learning, but it’s a choice that doesn’t need to be made.

The UK economy is broad and diverse and apprenticeships can provide a route into every niche; from accountancy to engineering, from software development to being a chef. Apprenticeships don’t just provide a pathway into this sometimes bewildering array of careers and the training to ensure they can contribute to the business, but also provide the next skilled generation of a businesses’ workforce.

When visiting the London Boat Show with UK Marine, I heard from Sunseeker and Princess Yachts, who a few years ago faced difficulties in finding future employees. They seemingly faced the choice of either importing employees from abroad or fighting competitors for the small pool of skilled employees left. Instead they chose the third option of creating new apprenticeship programmes and growing their own skills base. They now have over 100 apprentices each.

When meeting one of their apprentices from Scotland who now helps design the hulls for their super-yachts in Plymouth, she talked about how all of her friends, who went to university, are jealous of her job and the chance she now has. When I met another apprentice last week, he said that doing an apprenticeship made him suddenly feel like he had a ‘career, rather than just a job’.

As well as introducing you to the world of work, apprenticeships also provide a sense of progression, of opportunity, of a future. You can carry on developing your skills, becoming better at your job and earning all of the time. You can start at a Level Two, the equivalent of GCSEs, and find apprenticeships all the way through to Level Seven, the equivalent of a Masters degree.

Expanding opportunity is a central part of what the Conservative Party is about, and that has to mean opportunity for all. Increasing the number of graduates cannot succeed in this goal singlehandedly.

We want to build a society and an economy where everyone has a chance to show what they can do, to see what happens when they mix their talent with a good amount of hard work, to help people create a better life for themselves and their families. This aim is at the centre of so much of what the Government does, and apprenticeships are the key.

| First published at ConservativeHome