Once in every lifetime

Tony Young

Tony Young on ensuring today's teenagers get proper training and job opportunities 

A few months ago, whilst walking through my local council estate, I spotted a group of young lads who appeared to have nothing to do but hang around by some rubbish bins. I could only guess their age, 15 or 16, but a question went through my mind: why aren’t they at school, college or in a job? Given the current levels of youth unemployment there is a real danger of creating another lost generation of young people who, disenchanted with school and unable to find a job, either languish on Job Seekers’ Allowance or, worse, turn to a life of crime. 

This week is National Apprenticeship Week, started by a Labour government in 2008 – along with the National Apprenticeship Service with its remit to support and expand apprenticeships.  

On coming to government in 1997, we inherited a situation which showed only 65,000 apprenticeships with a completion rate of 27%. In our last year in office 2010, it had risen to 280,000 with a 72% completion rate – a massive improvement, but there was a lot more that needed to be done.

In placing the emphasis on encouraging 50% of young people to go to University – a laudable aim in itself – we unfortunately created an impression that vocational skills were second class. Advice in schools didn’t help, with little or no understanding of apprenticeships, and most young people were encouraged to carry on with an academic education regardless of whether it suited their inclination or ability. And a lot of them were not led to understand that it needn’t be an either or choice, as many apprenticeships can lead to a degree qualification – with the added benefit that you can earn while you learn. 

Career guidance in the classroom has a long way to go. We need more young apprentices to go back into schools and act as role models, especially young women, and those in the engineering and craft trades; and all schools should be linked to their local business community. All schools, colleges and universities should join together and run their own apprenticeship schemes – a model that is already working in some parts of the country. 

Earlier this week, I attended a Crossrail Apprenticeship Award presentation – a superb event which showed how the lives of a very diverse range of young people had been dramatically improved by winning an apprenticeship place on the Crossrail Construction project. This didn’t happen by accident, and was the result of intensive discussions with Crossrail prior to the start of the project, with a condition of the contract that they create at least 400 apprenticeships.  

The same approach was adopted with the Olympics, resulting in a further 300 apprenticeships. Yet, the Coalition still resists making apprenticeships a condition for winning a public procurement contract. Ministers trumpet that a million new apprenticeships have been created, but as we know from a recent review most are for the over 25’s and in many cases quality has been sacrificed.  

My primary concern is for young people and we know there is a huge unmet demand, with for example 25,000 applications for the 300 places available on the BT scheme. Less than 10% of companies offer apprenticeships, so the challenge is clear – we must create the conditions that make apprenticeships a natural part of every company’s development. If the HS2 project goes ahead it has the potential to create 33,000 apprenticeships – if it was made clear that this was a key condition for winning the contract. 

The current economic crisis is not the fault of young people in our country, and my generation and others must try to give today’s teenagers the sort of work opportunities made available to us when we were 15 and 16.

Lord Tony Young of Norwood Green is a shadow BIS Minister in the House of Lords 

Published 13th March 2013


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