Part of its lasting appeal is the audience’s love of a good “rags to riches” story; leaving school with little or no qualifications and making a fortune through sheer determination and practical application of entrepreneurial skills. Of course Baron Sugar himself epitomises this dream and is famously quoted as saying that he thinks university is a waste of time.
Back in medieval times an apprenticeship was a much sought after route into a respected profession. There was no alternative to learning a trade such as tailor, blacksmith or thatcher. Completing apprentices were granted prestigious positions such as being freemen of the city.
The modern apprenticeship is much less esteemed. Despite the government’s assertions that it wants a quality apprenticeship brand, it’s sold as the option for young people who didn’t like school and just want money.
It is on these shaky foundations that the government plans to build the new apprenticeship model as the panacea to eliminate unemployment. Their argument for this is complex. On the one hand they’re blaming poor UK productivity on employers not investing in skills. On the other, they have long talked of handing control of apprenticeships to those same employers.
Incidentally the productivity calculation is supported by a report into graduate skills – a report that doesn’t mention the word apprentice once. Requiring employers to fund apprenticeships sounds good in principle, although the pooling of those funds is more akin to a loss of control.
If the word “apprentice” has lost its value, then the word “levy” is a carefully chosen one. The fact that it’s a thinly veiled diversion from calling it a tax isn’t fooling anybody. If we went back to those times when an apprenticeship was something to value we would encounter the second and lesser known definition of a levy – as a term for conscription. Maybe this is a more fitting description; an army of unemployed people will need to be enlisted to meet the government’s targets.
The best employers already offer apprenticeships. They have structured and supportive training schemes that recognise potential and provide the opportunity to develop real talent in a useful profession. Previous interference has introduced discrimination and qualifications in subjects that are not relevant to employer needs and hardly worth the paper they are written on. The dangerous undercurrent of apprenticeships has always been there since their inception – if you’re that way inclined, they are essentially a form of cheap labour.
Under the new system it appears that some employers will be able to obtain free or cheap apprentices at the expense of those employers with a somewhat larger payroll. What kind of investment from the organisation can these individuals expect? Will they be a much valued and nurtured extra pair of hands, or a dogsbody without any real sort of role or prospects?
The apprenticeship is already a devalued currency. Many of those who actually “make it” via government schemes are (unlike Baron Sugar) ashamed of their humble origins. Enforcing a tax on this status is likely to only encourage further stigma. Those people out there waiting for a chance, a chance to prove themselves, may need to wait a bit longer.