Opinion

Creating apprenticeships will pay dividends

4 min read

07 January 2013

The need for a cultural shift towards vocational learning as a valid alternative to higher education is resonating with youngsters, as an increasing number are applying for apprenticeships.

According to the National Apprenticeship Service there were 1.12m applications for the 106,000 available places in 2012, which is proof of the prominent position apprenticeships have in the minds of young people.

At the same time, there were nearly 60,000 less new university students last year. So -maybe thanks to the rising tuition fees, the spectre of huge debts and no promise of a job at the end of a degree, alongside the growing awareness of apprenticeships – we are seeing the idea that there is only one track to success after leaving school finally dying.

Of course, I will always advocate on-the-job-training over lecture-theatre-learning, but practically, universities are necessary. 

I’d never be happy relying on a GP that hasn’t been to medical school, but that’s it. The best of the best; doctors, surgeons, scientists. I guess there’s a place for a few academics in society.

But for many other jobs, from the traditional trades through to IT and healthcare, there is no better way to learn than actually getting involved in the workplace. For hundreds of years all but the most complicated careers were taught on the job, and it was only in the second half of the 20th century that suddenly every Tom, Dick, accountant or solicitor needed a three-year-degree before they could start learning their trade.

It makes sense on both a practical level and a financial one. What is the point of learning history, geography, sociology and philosophy for three years when you want to become an auditor, working for a major accounting firm?

And quite clearly, what is the point of paying for all this? We need skilled workers, not indebted graduates overflowing with unnecessary and often useless information.

So, what’s the next challenge? Well, this is where business owners up and down the land come into play. While it’s great there were so many young people wanting to do an apprenticeship in 2012, a simple bit of plumber’s maths says that a ratio of ten applications for every place will not solve future employment and skills issues.

With the economy starting to come out of recession and employment on the up, things are looking a bit more positive for businesses. As they steady the ship in 2013, firms have to start to look further forward so they won’t face skills issues in four or five years’ time.

There is no doubt that creating apprenticeships now will pay dividends. It is a policy I have employed at Pimlico Plumbers for many years and all of our engineers are time-served apprentices who have gone on to build successful careers. And we are still recruiting apprentices, not just for the trades, but in IT, accounts and business administration too.

I am convinced there is no other way to do this and I urge other businesses to make a resolution for 2013 that apprentices have to be part of their workforces to make sure the pool of skilled people is full. 

Otherwise we will end up fishing in a pretty empty pond in a few years to come.

Charlie Mullins is founder and CEO of Pimlico Plumbers.