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Ian Beresford

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Why the Election shouldn’t change our focus on apprenticeships

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As the country anticipates a new Government, Ian Beresford urges the people in power to keep focused on their apprenticeship strategy.  

Business has become a key battleground for politicians as a platform to flex their muscles leading up to the general election. The discussion has already featured high on the agenda as ballot box fever grows, creating many a column inch and headline. Although it hasn’t yet received the same attention as the general subject of the economy and the companies that play a part in shaping it, youth unemployment will also feature high on the political agenda as we hurtle towards May 7.

One such staging post in the forthcoming debate is National Apprenticeship Week. Apprenticeships and graduate training schemes are vitally important as Britain needs to upskill its workforce to help us compete globally. The UK vitally needs young people to learn the skills of work – not only in the powerhouse sectors of old, such as engineering and construction, but also in areas such as retail, professional services and IT.

Around 18 months ago, the number of 16-24-year-olds out of work hovered at little under one million, partly down to the legacy of the global recession. According to the labour market statistics released in March, this number has reduced to 743,000. Although this has fallen from the previous 764,000 unemployed young people reported from September to November 2014, this figure is still too high. We remain some way off the lower rates of other European countries, such as Germany and Austria, although considerably better off than Spain, Italy and France (which is to be expected). [1]

What, then, do the figures tell us? They tell us the youth unemployment conundrum is far from solved, even with the horizon hinting at greater prosperity and growth. It means that we are faced with a generation of young people who are struggling to get jobs and who do not have the skills to solve that issue. At the same time, we have a nation crying out for skilled workers in order for it to compete with other nations on the global stage. It seems to be universally agreed that apprenticeships, graduate training programmes and sponsored student schemes can help alleviate this problem.

However, that is only half the equation. Whilst academia and Government can provide the training mechanisms – 'the push' – only industry can provide 'the pull' by opening up employment opportunities for apprentices and graduates. The youth unemployment issue can only be resolved when the 'push' and 'pull' sides of the equation are coordinated and matched.

In October 2013, six UK companies – QinetiQ, Babcock, Renishaw, MBDA, Airbus UK and Atkins – joined together to launch The 5% Club, an industry-led campaign designed to encourage industry to tackle the issue of youth unemployment by committing to 5% of their workforce be an apprentice, graduate or sponsored student. The campaign now has more than 70 members and is growing all the time with its biggest member to date, the Ministry of Defence, signing up in National Apprenticeship week a few weeks ago.

While it is based on tangible intake results, The 5% Club is fully aware that this is simply not a numbers game. To unlock the potential in those young people we know they need structured and meaningful training to improve themselves and become valued assets to the company. I believe that apprentices enable a company to build from within. This is particularly true of SMEs, of which The 5% Club is proud to boast many as members. In some cases, the business leaders of the future can be nurtured from the apprentice pool. This is something I personally believe in, as someone who started my working life as an apprentice. 

The overall philosophy of The 5% Club is that apprentices are given skills to not only benefit the employer and in turn the country as whole, but also to shape their own lives. Which brings us back to business, politics, and May’s election. When it comes to the apprenticeship debate, business should not be influenced by the General Election result when it comes to defining their apprenticeship and graduate strategy. Whichever government is elected and formed, the one constant in the skills debate is one that industry has to take a lead on. Business leaders – like political ones – will come and go, but industries' needs remain the same. Britain’s youth unemployment figures demonstrate the need for continued energy in generating job opportunities for 16 – 24 year olds.

It is up to UK industry – not just Westminster - to grasp the nettle and lead through action, through tangible job creation. If we want apprentices to be masters of their own destiny, industry must show how it is done.

Ian Beresford is director of capability at QinetiQ, a member of the 5% Club. To find out more information about The 5% Club and how to become a member, please visit www.5percentclub.org.uk or get in touch by emailing contactus@5percentclub.org.uk. You can also follow the campaign on Twitter and LinkedIn as well.

[1] http://www.statista.com/statistics/266228/youth-unemployment-rate-in-eu-countries/

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