Masters at work

    21 June 2014

    The apprentice is back! No, not another series of the transatlantic TV show starring blowhards with bad hair, but the real thing. Across Britain there is a return to one of the best possible ladders into full‑time work.

    And the new apprenticeship opportunities are also far less limited than the faked-up ones on our television screens. They cover the entire spectrum of skilled employment. Their proponents include large corporations and small workshops, new start-ups and ancient city guilds. The materials with which apprentices can now get to grips range from black gold to real gold, from master-craftsmanship to dealing in far commoner — if even more lucrative — resources. And these new apprenticeship sponsors are united in a realisation that it isn’t enough to moan about a skills shortage in Britain. People are not born with the skills needed for the modern job market. They do not always leave school with them. And they do not always find them at university, where they rack up liver disease and debt.

    Young people need help to find their way into what they are good at. And employers increasingly know that to make sure they are hiring the best people they must be recruiting from the widest range of backgrounds. Because, after all, good apprentices — like all good employees — are not simply conjured out of thin air: they are crafted.

    Take the account of just one supporter, Stephen Webster. Now one of the country’s top jewellery designers, he stressed to me how far from inevitable it was that he would end up where he is. ‘I was 16 and I didn’t know what I was good at. The careers adviser at school said I should find work in the dockyard. But I took myself to the local art school and discovered jewellery instead. My way into the profession then was being an apprentice. It was a huge opportunity.’ It is one that he is now intent on helping others discover too.

    A few years back Webster was horrified to learn that there were only 15 apprenticeships still available in his trade. So with fellow leaders in his craft he created the Goldsmiths’ Centre in Clerkenwell, where young people wanting access to the business can not just hone the necessary skills but get the chance to work under leaders in the profession. Along with Webster’s fellow designers like Theo Fennell, the Goldsmith’s Centre allows today’s craft-masters to teach and mentor the craft-masters of tomorrow directly. As Webster says: ‘If you want to start out to be a true craftsman there isn’t a better way than to be an apprentice.’ It is a view that more and more people are waking up to.

    And though it might strike some people at first as a throwback, the reality of today’s job market makes apprenticeships more important now than ever. Globalisation means young people find themselves competing not just with their peers but with young people around the world, often in industries which are not just highly technical but swiftly adapting.

    That is why companies like British Gas, Centrica, Patek Philippe and Rolls-Royce – to name only a few – have realised that they need to get stuck into specific training of their future employees. Young people in Britain may not leap from school with all the skills such firms need, but that does not mean such firms need to scour the Earth for people to work in Britain. Better, and less costly in the long run, to identify the talent right under their noses and train them on the job in the required skills.

    While the number of British apprentices declined sharply in the 1980s, from a high of more than 150,000 in 1979 to fewer than 50,000 in the 1990s, the number of people starting apprenticeships has more than doubled in the past five years. Last year 510,200 people began apprenticeships. Over-25s account for more than 40 per cent of apprenticeship places.

    But it’s important to sound a cautionary note, which is that today’s skillsets are not always completed with a single, formative apprenticeship. Many people will need retraining throughout their working life to keep up with the changes that new technologies and innovations in advanced economies constantly bring. This is the point stressed by Charlie Mayfield, chairman of both John Lewis and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. It is one thing to talk about 16-year-olds going through apprenticeships. But many people say that what has changed over the past generation is the whole idea of a job for life. What makes this especially troubling is that in today’s world even hard-acquired skills can rapidly become redundant.

    Some countries are far ahead of the UK in dealing with this. In Germany, for example, many companies take on the burden of what is effectively training for life. Of course retraining or ‘upskilling’ people in the middle of their careers is expensive. But Mayfield and others argue that in Britain we need a far better relationship between business and government to ascertain exactly what the skills of the future might be. At the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, through schemes like the Employer Ownership Skills Pilot, Mayfield has secured millions of pounds of government support so businesses can get more actively involved in teaching the skills to be expected of the next generation.

    One great thing about apprenticeships is that you can immediately see the way in which such schemes transform lives, and not just the lives of those who take part.  They reconnect us all with the products and services which shape our lives, and they almost became a thing of the past. But apprenticeships seem to be back in vogue just in time to become a permanent fixture of a more successful future.