Lord Baker echoes ARC Coachworks' skills gap concern
In a recent House of Lords debate, Conservative peer and former education secretary Lord Ken Baker of Dorking moved to address the skills gap in areas of British industry, the lack of young people taking up apprenticeships and the reasons behind the decline.
The skills gap itself and the issues surrounding it are well documented. During the debate, Lord Baker told the Lords how he tasked a group of 20 individuals to assess the skills gap in various industries, a gap which he described as 'so large that the Government have stopped publishing it' and even 'abolished the body' responsible for publishing it.
Baker said: “I have been in the House of Lords for 23 years and I can barely remember any debate on technical and vocational education. It is important, because the skills gap is large and growing. The gap in engineering is 203,000; there was no A-Level in engineering this year.
“In digital technology it is 600,000; there were just 10,000 A-Levels in computing, compared to 120,000 in maths. There should be as many computing A-Levels as maths ones.
“In hospitality, there are 100,000 vacancies; there were only five A-Levels in travel and tourism.”
The so-called 'Gove curriculum' introduced a decade ago when Michael Gove was education secretary was the culprit earmarked for blame, which Baker claimed is 'wrecking the educational system'.
Baker said: “It [Gove’s EBacc] does not respond to the needs of the British economy. EBacc is a total and utter disaster. Michael Gove’s successors never tried to challenge it.
“It will absolutely destroy technical education below 16. If you do that, you will not get apprentices at 16. Who is going to employ apprentices who have only done academic subjects? No one.”
Such issues are longstanding in British industry. ARC Coachworks, a firm that specialises in accident repair for commercial vehicles which has faced these very problems head-on. In their best practice article, managing director Gary Clark discussed their concerns.
Clark grew the Middlesex based business from his own home in 2010, to a firm which now employs 35 people, yet even a successful SME such as this has highlighted the 'hugely difficult issue' of being able to employ 'skilled people' in current times.
Clark wrote: “There are simply not enough young people and apprentices entering into the profession. Too many do not see this as a desirable career path – an issue that I believe is generational, and not something with a quick and easy fix.
“Decades ago, you would begin thinking about work in your mid-teens and decide fairly promptly on a course of action. Although I am not advocating a return to such times, I do think there are lessons to draw from that era regarding employment.”
Some of what Lord Baker proposed in the Lords debate may go some way toward addressing the concerns of small business owners like Clark.
Baker said: “When it comes to apprentices, the Government will run out of money at Christmas. All the levy has been spent and apprenticeships are falling, so they are going to have to make some difficult decisions. Perhaps I may recommend one or two.”
First and foremost, Baker suggested abolishing apprenticeships for 'men and women who are 40, 50 and 60' and concentrate efforts on those aged '14 to 24' and 'bring back young apprentices at 14' to entice more youngsters.
Secondly, Baker directly targeted one of the major concerns Clark himself raised, which is a primary cause of the skills gap: the incentives for young people to take up apprenticeships, namely young people who may not see such a career path as “desirable” according to Clark.
Baker emphasised that ministers need to be clear that incentives are there within vocational and technical education.
He said: “Why do Ministers not explain to people how much more apprentices can earn at 18? If you are accepted as a higher apprentice at Rolls-Royce, BMW or Network Rail, and all the qualifications you have are one A-level and one BTEC, you can earn up to £20,000.
“If you want to go to the Navy, it will pay £32,500 — much more than a graduate will get after three or four years as an undergraduate. We must sell this positively if we are to get more people wanting to be apprentices.”
Baker’s own hopes for the future following his recommendations remain positive, mainly thanks to the background of incumbent education secretary, Gavin Williamson.
Baker said of the education secretary: "He [Williamson] has made it [technical education] his main responsibility…because he came from a manufacturing background and worked with businesspeople in factories.”
Indeed, Baker then quoted Williamson as saying: “We should never underestimate the importance and the power that technical, vocational qualifications have in terms of driving our economic performance.”
Baker added: “He [Williamson] is the first Secretary of State for 10 years who has said anything nice about UTCs. Finally the Department for Education realises that we have to do something quite dramatic in order to catch up with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world in technical education.”
Much work is still to be done for the skills gap to be properly addressed and the apprenticeship levy has faced woes of its own in the meantime. However, with an education secretary in post who favours technical and vocational education and with debates on the issue now happening in Parliament, firms like ARC Coachworks may see action taken to bring about the changes they need sooner rather than later.