Guest post – STUC General Secretary Grahame Smith on Scottish Apprenticeship Week

 Grahame Smith is the General Secretary of the STUC, a Skills Development Scotland (SDS) Board Member and the Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) National Group link member for Ayrshire.

In this guest post, Grahame shares his views on the value of apprenticeships to young people, employers and the economy.

From its inception six years ago, Scottish Apprenticeship Week has offered a platform for all those with a shared interest in the success of apprenticeships to celebrate the benefits they bring to individuals, organisations and the Scottish economy.

However, the week has become much more than a just a celebration. It has provided the spark for many young people to consider pursuing a Modern Apprentice (MA) as a meaningful career choice and, for many employers, the catalyst for recruiting an apprentice.

More and more young people are seeing earning and learning as a genuine alternative to continuing in full time study, and more employers are seeing the business benefits of hiring and training apprentices to meet their skills needs.

According to SDS’s apprentice employer survey, 75% of firms believe apprentices improved their productivity; 71 per cent that they improved product service or quality; and 72% that employing apprentices improved morale. 

Across Ayrshire during the last full year (2014-15) there were 1,976 Modern Apprenticeship starts. By 2021, the number of Modern Apprenticeships funded by the Scottish Government through SDS will increase from 25,000 to 30,000 starts each year. The opportunity this offers will only be realised if that commitment is reciprocated by employers and industry partners including, amongst others, colleges and the trade unions.

The task at a local level of encouraging and supporting more employers, particularly small and micro businesses, to engage with our schools and colleges and to take on apprentices has been offered to employer-led regional groups being established across Scotland. A recommendation of the Wood Commission on Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, on which I served, these group are now beginning to emerge. I am excited by the enthusiasm and commitment of the new DYW Ayrshire group and look forward to supporting its efforts in my role as both the DYW National Group link member for Ayrshire and a member of the SDS Board.  

A key challenge for all committed to MAs is to increase access to apprenticeship opportunities. In December 2015, SDS launched its Equalities Action Plan for Modern Apprenticeships in Scotland. This five-year plan sets out the action SDS and partner organisations will take to address gender imbalances in the MA programme, as well as the low numbers of young people from ethnic minority backgrounds or with disabilities or leaving care starting an apprenticeship.

Redressing gender imbalances in apprenticeships, for example females in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) related jobs, is part of the plan. This, amongst other things, will be supported by SDS’s Equality Challenge Fund. The fund is aimed at innovative projects involving equality partners, charities, colleges, training providers and employers to get more young people from under-represented groups onto Modern Apprenticeships.

These projects are already having an impact across the country.

One, led by Ayrshire College, is changing perceptions about engineering and ICT among young women. There are rewarding careers to be found in both industries, so it’s no exaggeration to say that this project could be life-changing for the young women participating and crucial to the future of companies in these sectors currently struggling to find the skilled workers they need.

An MA is often a young person’s first real experience of the workplace and it is essential that it’s a positive one. That’s not just about the quality of the training. It is also about the quality of the workplace environment, and the terms and conditions under which they are expected to work. Some apprenticeship pay rates are unacceptably low and with travel and other costs to consider, a prospective apprentice might be turned off from a work-based training opportunity that otherwise would benefit them, the employer and our economy.      

Ultimately, it’s down to employers to play their part. Many do and the support is there from SDS, from Ayrshire College and from the DYW Ayrshire group being managed by the Ayrshire Chamber of Commerce to help many more. They have to provide the opportunities and, in return, they will get motivated young people with new ideas, enthusiasm and the talent they need to help them realise their business ambitions.  

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