Apprenticeship Week: Vince Cable, Microsoft and those "people in boiler suits"

As the government embarks on a drive to raise the profile and prevalence of apprentices in the UK, Microsoft has pledged that it will create 1,000 new apprenticeship places in the capital by 2014. Business secretary Vince Cable is now hoping to mobilise more UK firms to follow in the IT giant's footsteps, with the aim of creating an army of new skilled workers that he believes will help drive economic growth.

Speaking at the launch of National Apprenticeship Week yesterday, Cable applauded the efforts of firms such as British Airways, Superdrug, Procter and Gamble and BT, which have pledged to create thousands of new apprenticeship places between them this year, and said he wants to work with businesses to deliver 100,000 more apprentices over the next three years. His call to arms came as he announced that the government will be increasing funding for apprenticeship schemes by £222m to more than £1.4bn in 2011-12.

"I want to reinforce the message to business and young people that apprenticeships are a first-class way to start a career," said Cable. "Some of the most prestigious companies in England - large and small, public and private - employ apprentices and benefit from doing so. I'm calling on more businesses to follow this lead."

According to BIS, 80% of firms that employ apprentices say that doing so made their workplace more productive. However, the government believes that many employers still hold academic qualifications in higher regard than vocational learning, and is striving for apprenticeships to carry equal weight in the eyes of businesses.

Along with increased funding, graduation ceremonies for apprentices are being introduced in an effort to give greater recognition and esteem to those who complete an apprenticeship. Meanwhile, certain qualifications are being renamed, and an alumni network akin to those used by universities is being created.

At the launch yesterday, London Mayor Boris Johnson also announced a campaign to boost apprenticeships in the capital, fronted by former Apprentice winner and founder of The Bright Ideas Trust Tim Campbell.

Again, this is as much about changing the image of apprenticeships as it is about creating more places, as Campbell told City AM. Campbell insists that one of the biggest misconceptions is that apprenticeships are for "people in boiler suits who are going to go off and bang pieces of metal". While these do exist, the new scheme will cover 80 different industry sectors, with an emphasis on the financial sector.

It's no coincidence that these initiatives are launched against a backdrop of soaring youth unemployment. The number of out of work 16-24 year olds rose by 32,000 to 951,000 in November 2010, the highest figure since records began in 1992. This age group is disproportionately represented among the jobless, and many face a familiar catch 22 - you can't get a job without experience; you can't get experience without a job.

Apprenticeships can undoubtedly help to give youngsters the valuable skills and vital experience they need. And with university tuition fees set to rise to up to £9,000 a year, they may well become an increasingly attractive option for young people.

But apprenticeships can be hugely beneficial for employers too. As well as honing their technical expertise, by giving young people the opportunity to actually experience working life, apprenticeships offer the chance to develop crucial softer skills - in communication, learning how to deal with customers and problem-solving - that a university education probably can't. While academic education has its place, this type of on-the-job training can often turn out people who are more employable. Cable holds up Rolls Royce as an example - more than 30% of apprentices have progressed to senior management roles within the company.

Stephen Uden, head of skills & economic affairs at Microsoft, said he expects the firm's new apprenticeship scheme to be mutually beneficial. "With the issue of unemployment affecting more and more of us, apprenticeships represent a direct route into business that secures important skills for employers and apprentices," he said. "Apprenticeships give people a tremendous advantage, not only in terms of helping them get the job that they want, but also in terms of future earning potential."

It's not just large multinationals that can benefit though. Historic building restoration company Cathedral Works Organisation (CWO), which employs 100 staff, has offered an apprenticeship programme since 1965, and MD Bernard Burns says the firm's first ever apprentice is still working with the business as a contracts manager.

More recently, 20-year-old apprentice James Elsey was named joint winner of the Trainee Mason of the Year Award at the Stone Federation's Natural Stone Awards 2010. It's the second time CWO has won the award in as many years, which Burns says "demonstrates the company's commitment to training the craftsmen of the future at a time of skills shortages across the construction industry".

The company has carried out high profile restoration work at the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and many other historic buildings and stately homes.

"Our apprenticeship programme is fundamental to building our business and our reputation for skilled craftsmanship, as well as ensuring skilled craftsmen for future generations," added Burns. "It costs £90,000 to train an apprentice over three years and we have three to six apprentices working for us at any one time. This is a significant investment in both time and money but we have built our reputation on the quality of our staff."

By Steph Welstead

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