‘Political football’

Unite AGS Tony Burke writes on how the UK govt has treated apprenticeships and why Germany’s programme could well be a way forward for us

Reading time: 5 min

As the trade union representative on the boards of Enginuity, (the Sector Skills body for the engineering sector) and the Board of Cogent, (the Sector Skills body for the chemical, pharmaceutical and nuclear sectors) National Apprenticeship Week is always an important event in the annual calendar.

I was asked recently by the TUC to speak at an event organised by Bath University on what the UK can learn from the German dual system on vocational training and how the duel system could be a model for the UK to follow.

It was a big ask! The German dual system sets the benchmark for high quality training and an integrated social model which is lacking in the UK.

‘Bedrock for apprentice training’  

One of the strengths of the German model is that it has remained basically constant and has provided a bedrock for apprentice training in Germany for many years and importantly, it is a social model which involves employers, the state – and unions. As Professor Heike Solga in a presentation to the bath University web event made clear – skills and training are a collective bargaining issue in Germany.

In the UK, trade unions have had a significant role to play not just in regulating the numbers of apprentices in an industry to stop exploitation but also in the quality of their training and eventual qualifications.

It wasn’t unusual to find Trade Unions having a role in colleges of further education and in the direct training of apprentices themselves – indeed thousands our members, are involved in training of apprentices every day – including the in-house training centres and on the job training in companies.

‘Very impressive’ 

Some of the training that these centres provide is top quality training not just in the skills needed to do the job in the future, but with apprentices learning about social issues, finance and community service. They are very impressive.

However apprenticeships in the UK, have become a political football with governments looking to use apprenticeship numbers to enhance their own political goals when it suits or to downgrade them when is doesn’t.

And this current government has pushed unions – with all of our expertise – to the edges preferring to rely on business to set the standards and provide the funding.

Some of the apprenticeships on offer in the recent past were little more than low grade training badged as “apprenticeships” which were aimed at increasing the number of ‘apprentices’ in industry to help with government self-made targets.

These schemes found no favour with employers or trade unions.

The German model is one that the UK trade union movement has argued provides stability and a steady stream of highly skilled apprentices coming through the system with young people taking their place, not just in the workplace, but in society at large.

The idea of young people choosing a trade or skill in their early teens, as they do in Germany certainly finds favour in with Unite, the CSEU and UK unions – and now with the digital revolution up on us the idea is more important than ever.

‘Rent a quote’ Boris  

The Further Education White Paper published recently was a missed opportunity and said very little about future skills needs with the exception of yet another “rent a quote” from Boris Johnson about a “lifetime guarantee” and allowing employers (without the involvement of trade unions) to deliver skills and training and to decide what training is needed and how much it costs.

Germany’s system (even with the problems of the pandemic), is preferable to the “stop and start” short term thinking that we have had in the UK for too many years.

The digital transformation of work means that young people coming into industry will need different skills, for instance in the automotive sector, the manufacture and maintenance of electric vehicles will require new and different skills.

In fairness we cannot just transplant the German system into the UK – and there are some problems in Germany with the system but I see no reason why employers, schools and education and unions cannot work together developing a plan for the future.  I can be done and I think it needs to be done.

WATCH Tony Burke address the TUC Bath University event in the video below – Tony is 54 minutes in

By Tony Burke, Unite assistant general secretary

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