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Can apprenticeships save Britain?

We have known for a long time that the UK has been failing to keep up with the major developed economies (like the USA and Germany) in labour force productivity, but we now have to worry about the speed at which the GDP is growing in the BRIC countries like China, India and Brazil. It’s not how far behind they are at present, but the speed at which they are moving that should concern us all – employers, vocational education and training providers, and policy-makers alike.

We also know that it isn’t at the top end of the skills hierarchy that we are doing badly – we have expanded our higher education system to match our competitors reasonably well. It’s at the intermediate level that we are suffering – we have too many people with low level skills who can’t perform the more complex tasks that are needed in a modern economy so we finish up using graduates to do jobs that are below their capabilities, to fill the gap.

Apprenticeships could be the answer to how we address this problem. To be effective, two things are needed; the first is that attitudes to apprenticeships must change, and that seems to be happening, but there’s still more that needs to be done. In schools particularly, we need to see apprenticeships really valued. When your local paper carries a piece on the number of leavers who have gone into apprenticeships from your local secondary school in the same way that it does with University entrants, then we will have made a breakthrough.

The other thing that’s needed is for employers to treat apprenticeships as a vehicle for driving up performance standards. And by employers I mean the managers who recruit and supervise apprentices. That’s why ILM is encouraging all managers to look at the opportunity offered by the apprenticeship system to bring about real changes in their way of working.

Apprentices can be recruited at different levels, and Advanced (level 3) and Higher (levels 4 and 5) Apprenticeships enable organisations to take on people with real potential and set them demanding but achievable targets to perform at higher levels than have previously been achieved. By bringing in new employees with no preconceptions about how things should be done, managers can bring about step changes in their ways of working.

One guaranteed route to gaining managers’ awareness of the many benefits of Apprenticeships is to fast-track their own leadership and management development with a Management Apprenticeship. These are available at Level 3 and – Higher Apprenticeships – Level 5 (there is also a Team Leading Apprenticeship at Level 2), supporting those organisations that want to build their management talent pipeline to do so. One of the great benefits of Management Apprenticeships is that they demonstrate just how significant apprenticeships are in starting people on a career path than can lead to the most senior reaches of a company. Whilst other school-leavers are building up their student debts at University, their peers can be working towards a professional qualification, supervising a team of people, managing a substantial budget and taking on the kind of responsibility that comes with a burgeoning management career.

David Cameron also made a pledge this week to make apprenticeships the ‘new norm’. He is quoted as saying he wants work-based training to sit “at the heart of our mission to rebuild the economy”.

So the challenge which National Apprenticeship Week presents to every organisation in the UK is clear – take advantage of the huge benefits of management apprenticeships by developing your next generation of leaders and managers.