Although trade unions are at the forefront of delivering and supporting apprenticeships across all industrial sectors, it was revealed on Friday (January 27) that not one trade union representative will sit on the new Institute of Apprenticeships board.
The snub was among the latest instances demonstrating that the government’s new Apprenticeship Levy, which is set to come into effect in April, is not fit for purpose.
Unite acting general secretary Gail Cartmail condemned the lack of a trade union voice on the board as “bonkers.”
“We are part of the solution,” she told UNITElive, and explained how trade unions promote high-quality apprenticeships.
“We encourage the promotion of diversity in the take-up of apprenticeships,” she noted. “We protect the apprenticeship brand. Apprentices’ mentors are our members. We fight fiercely for quality and we promote scale by collective bargaining and our relationships with clients.”
Cartmail pointed out that it was trade unions, for example, that negotiated with the French energy company EDF an apprenticeship ratio which is now binding in the contract for the building of the Hinkley Point C project.
“This ratio is sustainable for the lifetime of the project and will create an apprentice footprint,” she noted. “Nobody else did that; trade unions did.”
“The government has the capacity to put this right,” Cartmail said of the omission of trade union representatives on the Institute’s board. “Why wouldn’t you want social dialogue on such a non-contentious issue?”
“A trade union voice is a voice for quality, it’s a voice for diversity and it’s a voice for accountability,” she added.
Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke agreed.
“This is another blunder by the government,” he said. “Day in and day out unions like Unite are working with companies on skills and apprenticeships. Unite has thousands of members who train apprentices and have hands on experience to the highest level. For them not to have a voice through their union is a retrograde step.”
Cartmail explained that in Germany – a country which has no skills shortages in any of its sectors, unlike the UK which is plagued by them – social dialogue with trade union representatives on boards goes without saying.
“Nobody questions trade unions, the German equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), or the German education establishment all have a seat at the table and each voice is respected equally,” she explained. “Whenever they see the potential for any skills shortages they recalibrate accordingly and everyone plays by the same rules. And the German economy is booming.”
The news that there would be no trade union voice on the apprenticeships body board comes just as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published today (January 31) a scathing report of the new Apprenticeship Levy.
The Levy, which will in effect constitute a 0.5 per cent tax on employers whose pay bills are more than £3m, is supposed to help fund apprenticeships but it has been fraught with delays on detailed guidance from the government for companies, who now have only two months to prepare to implement it.
The IFS has warned that the apprenticeship levy’s associated targets – the government aims to create 3m apprenticeships by 2020 – will sacrifice quality schemes at the altar of quantity.
The apprenticeship levy is expected to generate £2.8bn by 2019-20, however the IFS warns that just £640m will be spent on training apprenticeships, with the majority of the levy spent in other areas. The IFS also warns that half of the new apprenticeships will be offered to people over the age of 25, rather than recent school leavers.
“We desperately need an effective system for supporting training of young people in the UK,” said Neil Amin-Smith, the report’s author. “But the new apprenticeship levy, and associated targets, risk repeating the mistakes of recent decades by encouraging employers and training providers to re-label current activity and seek subsidy rather than seek the best training.”
Burke argued that the “report must serve as an urgent warning to the government in its rush to get ‘bums on seats’; it is in danger of undermining its own policy.”
“This money must be ring fenced for high quality apprenticeships and not be allowed to leak away into other forms of training,” he said.
Burke pointed out that the Engineering UK trade body has said the UK will need 182,000 new engineering workers each year until 2022. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has also noted that there are over 7,000 skilled jobs currently unfilled in the auto sector because of skills shortages.
“We won’t be able to compete on the global market if we have massive skills gaps and we rely on low-skilled apprenticeships just to hit government targets,” Burke said.
Cartmail said the situation was just as dire in construction.
“The [construction] skills shortage and skills gap threatens major projects’ ability to deliver on time and to budget,” she said. “The ‘perfect storm’ is in part the reliance of many major contractors by-passing their responsibilities and relying on false self-employment through a supply chain of sub-contractors. This is not sustainable.”
“The Greater London Authority reported that despite a building boom in London the capital is the lowest ranking in the number of apprenticeships per head of the population,” she added. “And, shamefully, of the 1,560 apprentices in the capital in from 2015 to 2016 not one was female or from an ethnic minority background.”
Cartmail explained that the sort of good-quality foundation apprenticeships which Unite supports are “often the best deal a young person can have”.
“They don’t have to take out loans, they earn while they learn, and they should be covered by a collective agreement so they get the apprenticeship rate that’s negotiated by a trade union,” she said.
She went on to say that apprentices on such schemes have a mentor who is craftsperson or tradesperson who helps set them on a path towards a lifelong career.
“The apprentices we send out as ambassadors are solvent, they’re confident, they have a great relationship with the employers who have invested in them, and they have real job security,” Cartmail noted. “They usually have a car, often they’re saving for their own home even – good apprenticeships can be a great success story.”
Burke said it is these “gold-standard apprenticeships” which Unite is lobbying for – ones “with real transferable skills leading to decent, well-paid jobs at the end of the apprenticeship.”
Beyond giving young people, who’ve suffered so much under the twin burdens of financial crisis and austerity, a pathway to a bright future, Burke said that high-quality apprenticeships are “essential if we are to have an industrial strategy that works and boosts productivity and tackles increasing skills gaps.”
Under the shadow of Brexit, the UK will need such a boost in productivity if it is to chart a successful future outside the EU.
“The challenges faced by the economy of Brexit and leaving the single market will not be met unless there is a stable highly skilled labour force for UK employers to draw from,” Burke warned. “Without this we will see industries across the economy from construction to highly skilled enterprises struggle to stay in business.”