Apprentice for a day

Doing my bit to address the skills shortage

“Steady on!” says John Hitchcock, managing director of Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard, as his apprentice for the day – that's me – takes his inside leg measurement just a little too forcefully.

“Usually, we're a little gentler with our customers,” adds Prince Charles's tailor, with a lump in his throat, his eyes watering.

After watching Mr Hitchcock make me a pair of trousers in the morning, I did the same for him in the afternoon. Setting aside the unfortunate incident with the measuring tape, the day went well. Mr Hitchcock, as we apprentices are honoured to call him, watched closely as I cut, pressed and sewed, so little could go wrong; but all the same I was pleased that he considered my finished work satisfactory. Indeed, he promised to wear the trousers I had made him.

On such experiences is a great apprenticeship based. After all, Mr Hitchcock learned from Mr Bryant, and Mr Bryant learned from the founder, Mr Anderson.

A few days later, as apprentice to a plumber, I did a safety check for gas leaks, helped to solder pipework and ripped an old bathroom from a cottage in Hertfordshire. In doing so, I inadvertently drenched the site foreman – but in an apprenticeship that lasted just one day, I could hardly be expected to get everything right. Indeed, I could only scrape the surface of jobs that normally take a long time to master.

But every bit helps, because Britain has never had such a dire shortage of skilled workers.

The government hopes to address this by encouraging apprenticeships across the country and in every sector of the economy. This week, two ministers and the head of the civil service gathered to announced with some fanfare that Whitehall will itself take on apprentices. One has already been appointed to the staff of skills secretary John Denham; the work involves replying to letters from the public and MPs, and helping to organise visits around the country. Others will work in management, business administration, customer service, IT, catering and accountancy.

But is the government doing too little, too late? And is the ministers' new obsession with “qualification outcomes” itself at risk of damaging quality?

Some say it is. A new study, funded by Economic and Social Research Council, says that apprenticeships risk being just another scheme for meeting government targets – for cramming people into jobs or securing ever-more paper qualifications – rather than genuinely helping to train skilled workers for real jobs.

Professors Alison Fuller of Southampton University and Lorna Unwin of the Institute for Education argue that the best apprenticeships offer dual status – as both hands-on worker and college student, not just one or the other. This is certainly what apprentices enjoy at Anderson & Sheppard, as I see for myself when I meet a pair of students on day release from Newham College, hand stitching many hundreds of the 20,000 hand-stitches that go into each jacket.

“Nice work!” says Mr Hitchcock. Out of earshot, he confides that they will be given the collars they’re working on to take home and show their parents. “It would be unkind to put them in the bin in front of them.”

The relationship between Anderson & Sheppard and Newham College is working well because both sides have taken care to iron out difficulties, such as reducing the amount of paperwork Mr Hitchcock had to assess and making the course more practical.

But not every apprenticeship is equally successful. And the main reason is this, the professors say: in 2006, the government decided to remove a fundamental principle of modern apprenticeships, introduced by the Tories in 1993 – that apprentices should have off-the-job training. This could eliminate the time-consuming to-and-fro between college and employer, and rapidly increas throughput– after all, the government wants to guarantee apprenticeships to ever qualified school leaver by 2013. But the result may be that apprenticeships become worthless.

Does this matter? Unlike terrorism, flooding, MRSA and economic meltdown, Britain’s skills shortage does not typically make the heart pound and the eyeballs swell. But just consider how, over recent years, we have methodically rendered ourselves incapable.

Since the economic collapse of the 1980s, many once-thriving industries have offloaded the work overseas. As a result, few young people in Britain have skills that were once taken for granted — such as the ability to clothes. Tailoring, as carried out at Anderson & Sheppard, is a special case; most of the rest of the rag trade has vanished.

Of course, some jobs can't be exported: even the best plumber in India is no use if your loo happens to leak in Britain. But many UK-based skilled manual jobs have been filled in recent years by a million or so Poles and other “new” Europeans. Now a lot of them are returning home, thanks to the collapsing pound. Can Brits fill the gap? Not necessarily, because rather than encourage people into vocational learning, the government has spent a decade promoting university education — promising that graduates can expect to earn zillions as a result of having a degree.

Which turns out – big surprise – to be an exaggeration. Over the past decade, British students have amassed an astonishing £27bn mountain of debt – as much as £37,000 each. Many, after a decade in work, aren’t yet earning £15,000 a year – the threshold at which they start to pay back student loans. As one recent graduate complains on an internet discussion board: “If I could go back to when I was a teen, I would almost definitely do a trade of some description. I have a degree now but one of my biggest regrets is never doing a trade – my brother is a spark [electrician] and rakes it in.”

Leaving graduates aside, Britain boasts more 16- to 18-year-olds out of work – or not receiving education – than almost any developed nation: we come 24th of 28 countries. And jobless teenagers cost Britain £250m a year, according to the CBI.

In short: we’ve exported skilled jobs overseas, hired migrants to do what’s needed here, pushed disproportionate numbers of young people into academic higher education, and kept many others unqualified and expensively unemployable.

No wonder the UK Commission for Employment and Skills was moved to place full-page ads in newspapers last week, signed by the chairmen of BT, Standard Chartered and Marks and Spencer, as well as the directors-general of the TUC and the CBI. Their open letter warned that cutting back on training in the economic downturn is a false economy: “The skills of our people are our best guarantee of future prosperity… we must not pay the price of failing to invest.”

From the employer's point of view, the case for apprenticeships is compelling. Three-quarters say apprentices improve their company's productivity; a third even maintain that they do so within their first weeks. Sixty per cent agree that training apprentices is cheaper than hiring skilled staff – though this doesn't entirely reassure Anderson & Sheppard, whose co-chairman Anda Rowland worries that, once qualified, her apprentices may be snapped up by other tailors who don't put themselves to the trouble of providing training.

The businessman most commonly associated with apprentices is, of course, Alan Sugar. His own recruits, through reality TV, are untypical because they go straight into management, but Sugar warmly supports the government's scheme: “I was blown away with the investment Rolls-Royce has made in the apprenticeship programme,” he says. “The apprentices are being taught skills that I thought were a thing of the past – it's very encouraging and impressive to see it in action. There's a real sense that a future British workforce is being trained in an excellent way.”

Rowland agrees. She has identified a major shift in attitudes among young people, away from the stereotypical media-studies degree towards learning proper trades. Hitchcock concurrs: “For a while, no one was interested. But this is like organic food: people want to go back to how things used to be done.”

You get a less glowing assessment from Keith Read, a plumber whose expertise and hard work I've see for myself as one of his customers. (Once, when everyone else refused, he came over to clear rats from my cellar.) Shortly after my stint with the tailors, he gave me a short, strictly unofficial apprenticeship.

When Read trained as a plumber, in the early 1970s, companies were subsidised to train apprentices, but lost that financial support as soon as apprentices qualified. The perverse result was that apprentices were sacked immediately on qualifying. “It's a miracle that anyone got trained up at all,” he says.

Soon afterwards, official apprenticeships in plumbing dried up entirely. “We were encouraged to go self-employed,” he explains, “and when you're self-employed, you can't afford to train people.” Nevertheless, he's taken on several individuals over the years through ad hoc, informal apprenticeships – including his son Frank, who also studied plumbing a day a week at college , and now his grandson Dean, aged just 14, who was kicked out of school a year ago for persistent bad behaviour.

“If I wasn't doing this, I'd be on the street,” Dean tells me. “I don't want to do nothing. I'd be a bum before I'm 16. Most of my mates have been kicked out, too. They'd like to do well but they don't get a second chance. They wouldn't take me back at school so granddad said I could come to work. Most of my mates haven't got that — they're on the streets all day.”

“You get loads of disruptive kids like Dean,” says Read, “who are never going to go to university. They should be doing a couple of days work each week to keep them interested at school – put them into a job so they can have some time with grown men they can look up to.”

If this gives the impression that Read is some kind of softy, it’s worth adding that when Dean fluffs the gas-safety check his grandfather calls him a berk; and in time-honoured fashion he plays practical jokes on his “apprentice” – such as, not long ago, sending Dean to hardware shops to buy elbow grease.

Read has been allowed to take on his grandson only because officials proved wise enough to disregard regulations. Instead of fining Read for keeping Dean out of school, they've allowed him to carry on working; he will also be permitted to go to college for two days a week, despite being under-age.

Whatever the professors may say, Read isn't convinced his grandson will learn a great deal at college — to him, there's nothing like experience gained on the job.

Recently, he went to a site where younger plumbers had spent days pulling up floorboards to locate a leak. He pointed out that they could have saved time and money by cutting off the relevant circuit and laying a new pipe over a short distance to where it was needed. “That kind of thing comes from experience. People can do courses and fly through exams, but put them inside a house and they can't do anything.”