Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell explains why apprenticeships are vital for our country.

Apprenticeships are fundamental to the future of Britain.

The positive impact they have on individuals, businesses and our economy and society cannot be overstated. In my area of Manchester alone, I’ve seen local businesses thrive and grow after deciding to invest in apprenticeships, and opportunities unleashed for many young people after gaining a wealth of experience and skills that have paved a path for them towards a good career.

But the real reason apprenticeships are so fundamental to the future of our country goes beyond giving individuals great skills and training – essential as this is. It is also vital for delivering a productive, hi-tech economy that we need to compete in an increasingly globalised world. Developing a world-class vocational and technical skills system is central to addressing persistently high levels of youth unemployment that hold sections of our society back, and boosting Britain’s economic growth.

So it is absolutely critical that we all hold the Government to account where they are falling short on apprenticeships. Forecasts suggest that the UK will need more than a million new engineers and technicians in the next five years, yet the Tories are failing to deliver the pipeline of talent that is required.

From manufacturers and construction firms to digital industries and the CBI, businesses in the Britain are increasingly warning about the skills shortages that our country is grappling with. Very few apprenticeships are delivering the up-to-date skills in the sectors that need these the most. Worryingly, apprenticeship completions are actually falling and now one-third do not complete the training they start.

Despite the narrow and diminishing talent pool that exists, the Government is not doing anywhere near enough to encourage girls to study STEM subjects nor to join engineering courses or enter the industry. High quality, independent careers advice and excellent work experience placements are now non-existent in the majority of schools. This can hardly be described as progress.

Ultimately it will fall to a Labour government to rebuild the post-16 education sector. This aspect of our education system has faced an onslaught from the Tories, with a real terms cut of 14 per-cent over the last Parliament and further reductions to come. I speak to college principals every week who tell me they are worried about the financial viability of their institutions, and have already been forced to drop courses.

The courses that are being lost include in subjects key to our country’s competitiveness, such as A-levels in science and modern languages. At the same time, increasing numbers of young people are dropping off the radar, deprived of the local support they need to help them to succeed in life after school. Also pivotal will be turning around Britain’s woeful record when it comes to basic literacy and numeracy skills. These skills remain stubbornly weak among the next generation, compared to our counterparts abroad.

In opposition, Labour has the time to consider how we can develop practical solutions for the big questions that face our economy and society and which the current Government ignore.

What does a modern skills system look like, amid increasing globalisation, demographic change, and the rapid pace of technological innovation?

How do we close the growing skills gaps that are holding our country back, equip every single young person for work and further study, and connect young people leaving schools with the opportunities available locally?

What is the answer for tackling the significant gender imbalance when it comes to women in engineering, with women making up just 4 per-cent of engineering apprentices and leaving our country with one of the lowest gender ratios in engineering in the developed world?

Winning the global race will require far more than simply expanding general higher education. If we are not to be left behind, we must deliver a high quality apprenticeship system and rigorous vocational qualifications that prepare young people for the world of work and provide the skills our economy needs for growing sectors and the jobs of tomorrow.

We must work with business to revolutionise work experience and ensure that all young people get access to effective careers advice and guidance that sign-posts them to high-wage, high-skill work, so they can fulfil their potential and benefit the economy.

Investing in the education of our young people is the best down payment a country can make to secure its economic future, and apprenticeships should be at the heart of this. Let’s hope that the Government takes the time during National Apprenticeships week to remember it.