River Wissey Lovell Fuller


October 2015

Apprentices have been around for centuries, it was the way in which skills were transferred from generation to generation, and when one sees evidence of the skilled work of people as far back as the sixteenth century and beyond it is clear that the system worked. One can only stand in awe at the standard of workmanship in some of the artefacts, achieved with none of the machines and materials available today. When I was an engineering apprentice with the Ministry of Supply I did part of my training alongside craft apprentices, they did two years in a training school followed by three years in the factory where they further developed their skills. They emerged at the end of their five years as highly skilled artisans. It was a very good apprenticeship. Five years was not an exceptionally long time, some trades had seven year apprenticeships, and it was all worth it in the days when these skills were so important. Today there are some very good apprenticeships run largely by major concerns such as Rolls Royce, but they are less concerned with teaching manual skills, concentrating more on instruction on modern manufacturing methods and design process, and this requires a higher level of intelligence and education. There is less demand for manual skills in the workplace, far fewer people that can operate machine tools are required, so much machining is performed by digitally controlled machines or robots, much assembly work is also performed by robots, but the people that programme and set these robots need to be of graduate standard. Of course there remains areas where more manual skills are required, there are smaller companies that cannot afford the outlay for robots but, unfortunately. they often do not offer training. The construction industry is one where there is still a significant demand for manual skills. The Ministry of Works used to run excellent apprentices in this field, they produced people that were competent carpenters, bricklayers, etc and were capable of following the architects plans, no matter how complex they might be. But today many builders do not offer apprenticeships, rather they try and poach skilled men (or use poorly trained personnel). The government’s initiative to encourage more apprenticeships is to be welcomed, but to set a target of three million apprenticeships is ridiculous. There are only two million 16-18-year olds in the country and many of those are still at school. According to one report there is already evidence that some employers are claiming that they are starting apprentices when they are just employing the youngsters in normal school leaver jobs, clerical work, retail work, and catering, that have been rebranded apprenticeships. According to one newspaper report, there are apprentice clerks, warehouse labourers, even an apprentice street cleaner. Calling them an apprentice enables them to pay an 18-year old £2.72 an hour rather than the minimum for that age of £5.13. ‘Quality apprenticeships’ need to be encouraged and the government should endeavour to ensure that there are more of these but to set some silly target for apprenticeships purely for political reasons is to be deplored. Ron Watts

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