Opinion

The Alan Sugar debate shouldn't overshadow National Apprenticeship Week

4 min read

11 March 2013

This week is meant to showcase the benefits apprenticeships bring to business, education, and economy. But the scandal around Lord Sugar's ex-apprentice, Stella English isn't quite underlining that cause...

Isn’t it ironic that, as we enter National Apprenticeship Week, when we should be celebrating all that is good about providing jobs and skills opportunities to the next generation, Sir Lord Alan of Sugar is having a very public row with one of his The Apprentice winners?

As many of you will have read, the 2010 winner of BBC’s The Apprentice, Stella English is currently suing Lord Sugar for constructive dismissal. 

She claims that her job with one of his firms was as an “overpaid lackey” and that, according to her, she quit a second role he gave her when she discovered that her contract would not be renewed.

In what has been reported as “bad-tempered exchanges” in the national press, Lord Sugar dismissed parts of Miss English’s evidence as “total garbage” and said, “If you’re talking about scams this is a scam. This is an abuse of the tribunal system.”

Of course, it’s not for me to comment on the whys and wherefores of this tribunal, which is on-going. As Will Hutton wrote in the Observer yesterday morning, it should be considered “another milestone in the long devaluation of what it means to be an apprentice.”

Especially when, as I’ve said, the tribunal has taken place on the eve of National Apprenticeship Week, which runs until Friday and is designed to showcase what apprentices bring to businesses and the economy.

Obviously, most-right-thinking businesspeople know the difference between a true apprenticeship and a TV game show where a bunch of suited-and-booted wannabes run round the Capital trying to please a Lord.

However, in the public’s consciousness, the two are linked. In fact, back in 2009, Lord Sugar fronted a campaign for the government to help recruit apprentices.

Therefore, businesses need to reclaim the term “apprenticeship” and make sure it retains its value and status.

Of course, it’s not just protection from the world of TV we need to give to apprenticeships. We also need to stop companies who hijack the name just to give their shelf-stacking training courses gravitas.

I’m an advocate of giving apprenticeships some kind of protected designation, such as those afforded to food and drink. This would help revive the status of what should be an esteemed and highly-valued educational path.

Claiming back the name and format of apprenticeships from TV shows, politicians and corporations will only serve to add value to the schemes, which will make it a more attractive education route for young people.

You will hear a lot this week about apprenticeships being more popular than ever, which to me, as someone who started his career as an apprentice, is fantastic news. 

However, we have to look at quality over quantity and make sure that the apprenticeships that are on offer are to the standard employer’s need and in industries that require skilled personnel that can bring businesses and the economy forward.

I’m not just talking about the traditional trades either, which, of course, are vital, but in other roles within businesses that, with the same format and level of qualifications applied to them, can also help boost business growth and career opportunities.

I just hope that after National Apprenticeship Week the country is left understanding the true value of apprentices and not lamenting the breakdown of relations between the Lord and his ex-apprentice.

Charlie Mullins is founder and CEO of Pimlico Plumbers.