The National Audit Office has laid out the economic benefit underpinning investment in apprenticeships, says Gordon Birtwistle, Liberal Democrat apprentice champion, who explains what the Coalition has been doing to boost their popularity and rigour — and also what still needs to be done.

As the government apprenticeship ambassador to business, my job is to advocate and promote apprenticeships to businesses, young people and schools across the country; working closely with both the National Apprenticeship Service and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The Coalition is committed to creating more apprenticeship placements than ever before and enabling young people to see apprenticeships as a valid and worthwhile next step after school.

Over the past year I have been visiting a range of schools, training providers, businesses including small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and apprentices to hear from a range of people and to establish how the government can improve apprenticeships.

Since 2010, Liberal Democrats in government have helped to create 1.6m new apprenticeship starts — more than double the number under Labour. As a party, we are extremely dedicated to keep the number of apprenticeships growing.

Apprenticeships are vitally important to the UK’s continued economic recovery.

For the UK to compete in the future, we need a highly skilled workforce. The National Audit Office has estimated that for every £1 spent on apprenticeships the wider economy benefits by £18.

The government is supporting businesses to ensure that apprenticeships are of the highest quality possible.

We have introduced new rules requiring an apprenticeship to last a minimum of 12 months. At the same time we are supporting the training of apprenticeships. We will cover 100 per cent of training costs for apprentices aged 16 to 18 and 50 per cent of the costs of those aged 19 to 24.

The government is also encouraging new businesses to take on apprentices. Companies employing more than 1,000 staff can receive grants of up to £1,500 to help support apprentices, in addition to training costs, if they have not taken on apprentices before.

There is an aging workforce across UK manufacturing — particularly in my
local area of Lancashire. We need young people to be trained up to ensure the knowledge and experience of the current workforce are not lost and can be passed along to the next generation creating a knowledge transfer network that will be retained.

It’s clear that SMEs also need to be able to access cheap finance to ensure capital investment is achieved and they need to be made aware of and understand financial markets, in particular the banking industry.

The government needs to ensure that the tax and regulatory systems are easy to understand and provide incentives to ensure SME companies expand and do so with apprentices.

I am confident the majority of SMEs in the UK are well-managed, visionary and see their role in delivering our future’s economy. They are hugely important to
our country and the road to economic recovery.

The government is also working to make sure there is better recognition of apprentices. Part of National Apprenticeship Week will focus on increasing awareness, understanding and demand for apprenticeships, as well as celebrating the achievements of apprentices.

Over the past month, I have had positive responses to apprenticeships and am starting to see a slight shift in attitude towards them. However there is plenty more to be done, especially in schools and on careers advice. We must engage young people and make them aware of the opportunities out there, eliminating this stigma of failure for not opting for the ‘normal’ university route.

Apprenticeships are fantastic alternatives which guarantee skills for life and employment too.

National Apprenticeship Week supplement

National Apprenticeship Week supplement