Apprenticeships to be seen on a par with degrees

I spotted this piece in the Guardian’s Education Online section.

Seems the coalition government is considering the introduction of an ‘Earn or learn’ scheme for 18-21 year olds.

It’s a great notion, in theory, and if it benefits those who are currently not in education, employment or training then I for one will applaud it.

But what bemused me was that Cameron and Clegg want apprenticeships to be seen as being on a par with gaining a place at university.

What a world we live in!

For decades we’ve been pushing more and more of our teenagers through the doors of the country’s universities.

We’ve spent time and money on raising the aspirations of those youngsters, who in my Middlesbrough schooldays – in the 70s and early 80s – would have been the perfect candidates for apprenticeships.

We all knew them, some of us were them.

Academia wasn’t for everyone, lots of teenagers were far keener to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to some ‘real’ work – plumbing, decorating, catering, hairdressing etc.

But as unemployment rose and the number of apprenticeships declined we had to try and keep those teenagers occupied and focused – we had to give them something to aim for.

University degree courses became the answer and we attempted to make every 18-year-old in the land believe that if they worked hard enough and acquired a degree certificate then the future would be bright.

For many that was true.

But for some it wasn’t, and in my honest opinion, for some it never will be.

There are more graduates these days than genuine graduate jobs, which is why you will often find yourself being served in a supermarket by someone with a degree.

Just the other day I discovered the customer assistant serving me at the checkout in an Asda store was a qualified primary school teacher.

And I know several employees on the shop floor of a leading High Street retailer who have enviable HE qualifications but who have been unable to secure a position which matched their academic achievements.

Instead they are filling shelves, serving customers and being paid less than the newly-suggested ‘living wage’.

I’m not alone – I bet everyone reading this knows someone with a degree who is either claiming benefits or who is employed in a semi-skilled or non-skilled role.

These people are among the country’s working poor – struggling to make ends meet, saddled with mounting student loans, no prospect of getting on the housing ladder or affording a fortnight in the sun, and wondering what it was all for.

For years we’ve led our teenagers to believe if they didn’t get offered a university place they had failed to make the grade, that somehow, if you found yourself on an apprenticeship scheme it was a consolation prize.

So how refreshing it is to discover apprenticeships are being picked up and dusted off by those leading the country.

The Business Secretary says teenagers weighing up a degree versus an apprenticeship should see them as “different but of equal value in terms of experience, job prospects, value for money and earnings potential”.

Truth is, there has never been anything wrong with apprenticeships, but for years they were abandoned, public opinion was swayed in favour of degree courses, with scores of column inches given over to the latest rolls of honour and cap and gown parades.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking university education, I have one, my eldest daughter is a PhD student and the youngest one is about to embark on a nursing degree.

But it’s not for everyone and I agree with Vince Cable – you won’t find me saying that very often – it’s time apprenticeships were seen as a worthy option for our teenagers.

Mr Cable says we need a much simpler system which “supports and incentivises people to get the skills they need to secure sustainable employment”, whether that be through higher education, further education, an apprenticeship, or through more bespoke interventions to help them acquire the employability skills that too many companies say are lacking.

Roughly translated I believe he is saying that it’s horses for courses.

And that we should be doing everything possible to ensure that our young adults, whether they be in higher education, further education, apprenticeships or some other route, are given enough support – financial and social – to acquire the skills they need to complete in today’s world, and to fulfil their individual potential.

I use the words ‘individual potential’ for a specific reason.

While it’s true some of our bright young things will go on to be leading scientists, doctors, barristers and architects, it’s also true that others – due to individual skills and academic ability, or choice – are destined to be plumbers, decorators, chefs, and electricians.

And that’s how it should be – with all stigma removed.

But while those of us who grew up in Teesside in the 70s and 80s probably appreciate the value of quality apprenticeships, the Business Secretary has a mountain to climb to change the hearts of minds of today’s youth – a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research reveals that three quarters of sixth formers have their sights set on attending university.

Seems the PR campaign that raised aspirations could take some undoing….