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Adult Apprenticeships

Volume 472: debated on Thursday 21 February 2008

We recently announced that, for the first time, funding will be targeted specifically at expanding apprenticeships for adults aged over 25. That will mean 30,000 such apprenticeships costing £90 million over the next three years.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he take this opportunity to tell the House what can be done to support not only adult apprenticeships but all apprenticeships in Scotland in the same way as they are supported by the Government in England?

My hon. Friend will know that that is a devolved matter. I have been in discussion with my counterpart in Scotland and I know that they have not sought to make progress on modern apprenticeships in the way that we have most recently on this side of the border. It is a devolved matter and I know that it is the subject of great debate in Scotland.

In a previous Question Time, the Secretary of State admitted that there was a 40 per cent. drop-out rate for apprenticeships. Does the Minister not agree that that is an extraordinarily high figure and does not justify the huge investment from the Government? What is his Department doing to tackle that unacceptable situation?

I think that I said to the hon. Lady that completion rates for apprenticeships were currently at 63 per cent. I ought to remind her that completion rates in 1997 were 25 per cent., that there was no inspection and that investment in further education colleges in resources for apprenticeships was nil. The Government recently published their apprenticeship review precisely in order to ensure that quality improves and that more young people are able to take up apprenticeships and complete them.

In assessing how this welcome programme can involve women, will my hon. Friend look in particular at the recent Select Committee report “Jobs for the girls”, which considered the impact of occupational job segregation on the worrying continuing gender pay gap and the waste of skills in the economy? Will he particularly look at the issues included on how to encourage women over 25 to have the confidence to go into non-traditional jobs, on how the drop-out rate is partly the result of low pay—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and for the way in which she continues to champion issues of equality in relation to apprenticeships, particularly for women. I hope that she will be pleased by the recent announcement on apprenticeships, as more money will improve prospects for women. I hope, too, that she will welcome the last chapter of the apprenticeship review, which deals with those equality issues. One thing that it highlights is the need for critical mass pilots to get a number of women in a cohort into a particular sector. In my early weeks in this post, I was pleased to visit Kier construction in Islington, where they were working with women and upskilling them in the construction industry. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that women feel more confident about coming into such sectors at an older age than they might have done when they were aged 16 to 18. That is why the pilots are so important.

I am pleased that since 2003-04 we have seen the doubling of completion rates for apprenticeships at both level 2 and level 3, but will the Minister tell us what he will do, first, to make sure that retention and completion rates are higher and, secondly, to disincentivise employers who train people to a particular level but then drop the apprenticeship because the people are economically useful to the company, because that is one of the huge barriers to young people completing their apprenticeship?

On the issue of drop-out, we do everything we can to raise completion rates and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s acknowledgement in the House this morning, but it is important not to say that young people have “dropped out” of an apprenticeship—they have completed a part of their apprenticeship and often go on to other occupations and valuable work that is right for them. One of the things that we have been keen to do is to ensure that there are programme-led apprenticeships, perhaps for young people who are not ready for an apprenticeship. We are absolutely committed to ensuring the quality of apprenticeships, but such young people can work in college, based around the sector, in preparation for an apprenticeship. We believe that that is absolutely key to driving up standards and completion rates. It is also important to acknowledge that in the end this is employment, and the whole thrust of the review is to incentivise employers to recognise the contribution they need to make to their local community so that we are all investing in our young people.

My hon. Friend may be aware that BRUSH, a group of companies in my constituency, is for the first time taking on apprentices in the engineering sector that was decimated in the 1980s and is now re-growing. However, the group has reached the stage of having to put up billboards around the town to attract people to apply for those posts, as people feel, because of the state that engineering has been in for the past decade or so, that there is a problem with its future. What is my hon. Friend doing in his Department to ensure that we promote engineering and the fact that it has a bright future? BRUSH has full books and a healthy future in front of it, so we need to promote the benefits of engineering to young people, because it is the foundation of everything we do in the UK.

My hon. Friend is right, which is why we have included in the apprenticeship review a requirement for schools to ensure that there is appropriate careers information about available apprenticeships. In relation to engineering, he will be pleased that SEMTA—the Science, Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies Alliance, the sector skills council—has identified careers information and work with schools as a clear priority in its sector skills agreement.

I do not want to be excessively brutal with the Minister—[Hon. Members: “Go on.”] No, I know that he is desperately worried about being forced to repeat what he reluctantly acknowledged at the previous departmental question time, which is that the number of apprentices is falling at all levels. The Leitch report makes it clear that reskilling and upskilling adults who are already in the work force is vital to our economic future, so can the Minister tell us, ideally without more banter and bluff, why the number of adults not yet skilled to level 2, on all types of Learning and Skills Council-funded provision, including workplace training, has plummeted by 620,000—a staggering 42 per cent.—in the past two years?

It is becoming routine to have ding-dongs on this issue in the Chamber every few weeks. What the hon. Gentleman should concentrate on is the number of young people who have started an apprenticeship and the number who have completed one. The number of young people who started an apprenticeship this year is 180,000; the number who started an apprenticeship in 1997 was 65,000, so there has been tremendous progress. The number of young people who completed an apprenticeship this year was 103,000, and we have already discussed the poor completion rate when the hon. Gentleman was in power. Those are the figures. That is improvement and he should support the apprenticeship review to ensure that we take it even further forward.