Apprenticeships: we need action, not words

Last week was national “Apprenticeships Week”. You might have missed it and that would be understandable, not only thanks to the haphazard (or non-existent) publicity it got, but also because apprenticeships are no longer a popular means for people of all ages to train for a career.

This has been a trend in the making since the 1980s, when we moved away from trade, manufacturing and industry under the Thatcher Government to a service based workforce.

But problems have resulted from the increasingly unskilled labour market that is available to employers. So much so that technical and manufacturing businesses that still remain in places like Lowestoft are having to retain staff that are already passed retirement age because of the dearth of skilled workers available in the area.

I have to wonder how the dream of a Lowestoft that is at the cutting edge of the Wind Turbine industry in the UK can be realised if we are not willing to enable our local workforce to acquire the skills necessary to achieve it.

Lowestoft, and Suffolk generally, is well-stocked with eager young people looking for a fulfilling career that will provide them a good standard of living – we must meet the challenge of providing our predominantly unskilled youngsters with attractive vocational qualifications and give them the skills they will need for a career in vocational industries. Apprenticeships, provided by employers in both the public and private sector, must represent a significant part of this ambition.

As it was “Apprenticeship Week”, and I myself undertook an apprenticeship when I was 16, I decided to ask a question on the subject at last week’s session of Full Council.

It was announced in January by Skills Minister, Nicky Morgan, that all public sector and local government institutions are to make apprentices account for 2.3% of their total workforces by 2020. This is good news and the Labour Group and I welcome it.

However, within Suffolk County Council’s total workforce of 6,013, just 25 are apprentices – or a tiny 0.42%. Clearly, SCC must bring forward drastic changes to its recruitment processes if there are to be more apprentices working for the Council.

When asked about this, I found the answer provided by Cllr Gordon Jones, the Conservative Portfolio Holder for Skills at SCC, very disappointing.

This Government “policy”, announced with gusto by the Conservatives, is a ‘target’ only and is supposed to be aspired to, rather than enforced. Cllr Jones gave no details of any planned changes to SCC’s recruitment processes or any indication that this target will be actively pursued by the Conservative Administration.

If the Suffolk workforce is to evolve and be ready for the 21st century, then Suffolk County Council must lead by example – not vague words to be forgotten about, but solid action.

Cllr Keith Patience

Suffolk County Councillor for Gunton

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