Opinion

Protect the real apprenticeship!

4 min read

20 August 2012

Every summer when the A-level and GCSE results are published, the "university vs work" argument begins to rage.

I’m continually arguing for vocational apprenticeships to be raised in status so they can regain their historical position as a genuine career path equal to (and sometimes superior to) a university degree.

The sustained and continued devaluation of the term, however, is destroying, through misuse for political and financial gain, a once proud and economically important institution. This is nothing short of a national tragedy.

When I was a lad, a ten bob note was something of value; it had meaning and purchasing power. To put it in context: in today’s money, based on average earnings, it would have been worth £77.60.

On the high street or in the pub it was an asset in your pocket, but who today would even stop to pick up 50p from the pavement?

The same has happened to apprenticeships, the education and training opportunity that has given me, and others of my generation, a career, social standing, and yes, a good deal of purchasing power.

The problem isn’t that the apprenticeship I did years ago doesn’t exist anymore, because it and others based around trades old and new are still available. But like inflation’s effect on the ten bob note, the flooding of the market with lookalikes has in a real sense devalued the original commodity.

By this I mean courses called apprenticeships, some no longer than a few months, which give no more of a career to their hapless recipients than the “work schemes” they have replaced.

In short, an “apprenticeship” in stacking shelves in a supermarket is no apprenticeship. Anyone who calls it thus should be prosecuted under the trade description act.

So, what can business people like me, academics such as Professor Alison Wolf, who authored the Wolf Report on vocational education, and Vince Cable’s own apprenticeship investigator, Jason Holt, do to reinstate the status of the once esteemed institution?

How do we do this when there are others, whose actions are for political rather than economic and social gain, flooding the market with cheap imitations? The answer perhaps lives on the supper table and, no, I haven’t completely lost the plot.

What we need is something similar to the protected geographical indication (PGI) laws that protect the names of wines, cheeses, hams, sausages, and a whole lot more. This is the branch of European law that restricts the use names like Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Melton Mowbray pork pies, and Champagne to their rightful and traditional owners.

We need to claim back the name and format of apprenticeships from those politicians and multi-national corporations who are abusing it for their own purposes. Then perhaps A-level students in the future will not only be faced with a genuine and valuable alternative to university, but also not have to deal with a negative public perception, caused by the corruption of a once proud term.

Charlie Mullins is the CEO and founder of Pimlico Plumbers.