Malcolm Duncan, MD at Super Rod, discusses the opportunities for businesses to take on the next generation of apprentices and the barriers to getting young people into the electrical sector.
As a manufacturer and employer in the electrical industry, I see first-hand the need for more bright, young people who have the skills and aptitude to keep up with the increasing complexity of our business and the pace technology is advancing. To attract these people, we need to promote our industry and the diverse and exciting career opportunities we offer. Getting apprenticeships right is very much part of how we can achieve this.
Apprenticeships – a brief history
We don’t have to look too far back into the history books to find a time when apprenticeships flourished in the UK. At the turn of the twentieth century, there were more than 340,000 apprentices in training every year, and by the 1960s over a third of boys left school to become apprentices.
Alas the heyday of the apprenticeship was not to last amidst claims from trade unions that they didn’t guarantee a particular level of skill, falling numbers of traditional trade jobs and the rise in post-16 education. By 1990, the number of apprentices had dropped to just 53,000.
Over the years, various Governments have committed to apprenticeship reforms, from the launch of the Modern Apprenticeship in 1993 to new minimum standards for training in 2012. Most recently, the Conservative Government pledged to create three million new apprenticeships by 2020 as a key part of their manifesto for re-election.
“We need to encourage more electrical businesses to take on young apprentices by giving them access to information and support.”
While the political drive for apprenticeships growth is clear, politicians don’t take on apprentices – employers do – and we desperately need more of them on board. In 2014/15, around 8,000 electrotechnical apprenticeships were started – by comparison, there were 17,000 starts for construction apprenticeships.
One of the main barriers to electrical businesses taking on apprentices is that almost 9/10 are micro businesses, employing 0-9 people. Research suggests they’re time pressured, concerned about the commitment of taking on an apprentice, unsure about how the process works and the cost of it.
We need to encourage more electrical businesses to take on young apprentices by giving them access to information and support.
There are so many beneﬁts of taking on an apprentice. Not just there to make the tea, apprentices can plug skills shortages, reduce staff turnover, inject fresh ideas and increase productivity. For a self-employed electrician with a growing business, for example, an apprentice may provide extra capacity to take on jobs they would otherwise have turned down.
As they move through their apprenticeship, apprentices are able to take on more complex commercial work and may provide additional complementary skills – for example, online marketing skills or a full driving license so they can pitch in with transport duties.
Some businesses are concerned about the cost, but it’s not expensive to employ an apprentice. The standard wage for an apprentice aged under 19 is £3.40 per hour, although most companies pay the national minimum wage.
What is clear is that there needs to be a way for employers to talk to training providers about the realities of apprenticeships to dispel any misconceptions and offer real practical support. At last year’s industry roundtable event in Coventry to discuss apprenticeships in the electrical sector, it was suggested that training information hubs be set up at electrical wholesalers to ensure businesses had access to ongoing support. This could certainly be one way to establish a strong support network to link training providers, apprentices and their employers.
Unfortunately, providing enough apprenticeship opportunities is only half of the problem.
More young people are heading for university than ever before, and trade apprenticeships are struggling to compete. In December 2015, UCAS reported record numbers of students being accepted to UK universities and colleges.
Since when did learning a skilled profession become so unappealing to young people? One reason for this may be down to outdated perceptions of apprenticeships from both young people and their major inﬂuencers – their parents and their educators.
“Apprenticeships also need to be seen as inclusive routes to learning for everyone, not just ‘jobs for the boys’.”
One common misconception is that apprenticeships are only for those who aren’t academic. This is certainly not the case in the electrical industry, where the increasing complexity of installations and the introduction of smart technology in many homes and businesses means that the work of an electrician requires a great amount of skill and knowledge. Apprenticeships also need to be seen as inclusive routes to learning for everyone, not just ‘jobs for the boys’.
An apprenticeship is a way of learning which is as rich and as diverse as a degree course, and must be regarded as a relevant and valid alternative for young people. Apprentices finish their programme of study with real skills and experience they can use in the working world, and aren’t laden with student debt, which is a huge advantage over most graduates.
Getting the apprenticeships formula right will benefit every part of the electrical industry. From listening to the discussions on the subject, it is clear there is not one solution, but many solutions where we each have a part to play. This must include providing more support to electrical businesses to help them create more opportunities for apprentices, and ensuring that we as an industry are positively promoting the careers available for young people to attract the brightest, most talented apprentices we need to drive the industry forward in the future.