Personally Speaking - March 2020

Apprenticeships & Skills.

Even after years of building my own business, being newly elected to Parliament can sometimes feel like serving an apprenticeship.  It is a reminder that there is always something new to learn, some new skill to master.  This can be daunting, but really it should be exciting.  There are so many ways in which we can pack our lives with new experiences – including at work.  But we need to ensure that we all know how to get the support we need to get on.

Last month I attended an apprenticeships fair in Parliament as part of National Apprenticeship Week.  It was an eye-opener!  There are lots of opportunities for a wide variety of careers, but many need similar sets of skills – ‘transferable’ skills – that can be taken from one job to the next.  The most transferable skills are those that can be taken not just from job to job but career to career.  Communication skills, for example.  Or being able to organise yourself to be on time and deliver on time. 

Increasingly, employers are looking for a solid standard of maths and English skills. The usual sign that you have these transferable skills is a good GCSE in those subjects.  So not only do you have transferable skills, you have ‘portable’ qualifications to prove it.  But not all qualifications employers are seeking will be in traditional academic subjects.  Which is why apprenticeships are so important; they are portable proof of transferable skills and specialist knowledge. 

I’ve been delighted to talk about this to specialists at Staffordshire University who deliver apprenticeship programmes.  There are 750 apprentices studying at Staffordshire University; more than 450 of them studying at the university and based with an employer.  The apprenticeship programme is a major local asset, with more than 150 employers engaging with the university on it.

And I have been told by a local IT company that while they felt some school IT courses are stuck in the past, Staffordshire University’s apprenticeship schemes are up-to-date and relevant, delivering – and I quote – “clear and measurable benefits”.

I raised this excellent work with the minister in a debate at Westminster.  But I had a few issues to raise with the minister too.  For example, only three apprenticeship applications are allowed for the smallest businesses, and I would like it to be a key focus of the policy process to improve on this. 

And that also means making sure that all employers understand how the system works.  Without that, we will not maximise the opportunities for job seekers to get meaningful and effective training.  

Staffordshire University is certainly playing its part, offering courses, advice and support around enterprise, training certification and skills, for those businesses not yet ready to take on apprentices.  And soon there will be a new university building, the £40 million 'Catalyst', that will focus on digital skills.  6,500 apprentices should be in place by 2030, which is great news for the continuing efforts to level up skills levels in Stoke-on-Trent, and retain talent within the city.  And the university is not alone.  Bodies like the North Staffordshire Engineering Group Training Association with its ACE Academy are vital to this work too. 

We are rightly proud of our manufacturing economy and determined to build on its historic success.  We can do this with modern technology, state-of-the-art skills, and world-leading, specialist, training providers.  And the ACE Academy offers training in engineering specifically designed by industry experts for the skills that are needed by local engineering companies.  All trainees gain practical experience, supporting them into employment in real jobs in manufacturing and engineering – with recognised qualifications for their skills.

I tried my hand at welding at the academy and was deeply impressed by the equipment and support available to those – of any age! – looking to learn something new. I left wanting to try more and my last thought was, wouldn’t it be lovely if the ACE Academy were able to offer night courses too?  There are some issues to resolve before that could happen – not least the transport situation.  But that’s for another article.

For now, I end on a positive: Stoke-on-Trent is at the heart of the apprenticeships and skills agenda.  That’s something we can all be proud of. 

Article published in The Sentinel - March 2020