Longer, more flexible and locally orientated apprenticeships must be placed at the heart of the Conservative’s “Earn or Learn” agenda. This was the key idea emerging from the round table hosted by the RSA and The Manchester College to investigate the role of creativity in modern apprenticeships. Lying beyond doubt was the idea that creativity born from deep expertise and understanding was vital to the development of a strong and happy economy and workforce.
Employers and business leaders consistently call for greater creativity in the workforce and tell us that current systems of education do not deliver it. This call, however, is carefully nuanced. They call not for young people with a 'raw' creativity but rather a capacity within their employees to react intuitively, innovatively and effectively in new and challenging situations. Unfortunately in recent years a worrying trend towards shorter and shorter apprenticeship programmes has emerged, with some more cynically minded training providers offering ‘Year and a day’ courses that barely meet the funding conditions. These sorts of apprenticeship do not allow enough time or intellectual space for apprentices to develop a deep and technical understanding of their field; something vital to the development of the creativity that employers want and need.
Longer apprenticeship programs give young people more time to develop their skill while remaining within the framework of intellectual safety that training provides. Apprentices are able to make mistakes that traditional employees are not. Longer duration apprenticeships not only benefit the apprentice, but provides a greater financial incentive to the employer. Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessments explained to delegates at our round table that by extending training for apprentices beyond the time it takes to develop only basic competencies an employer can offset the costs of having an untrained apprentice at the start of a programme by having a highly competent, but similarly paid one towards the end of it.
If the Conservatives are to achieve their ambition of making Britain ‘the best place to do business in Europe’ then they will need to ensure that the three million apprentices they create over the next five years have the flexibility to work in emergent and developing sectors. Amongst our delegates there was in general a call for a more flexible apprenticeship programmes involving not only a limited set of skills for a single employer but rather a wide range of transferable skills equipping them for this eventuality.
We need to re-orientate our thinking around the role of apprentices. Graham Jeffery from the University of the West of Scotland reminded us that we need to think of apprenticeships not only as a mechanism of meeting raw economic imperatives but as a way of enriching our civic society with individuals able to make purposeful contributions to it. By developing young people with not only a deep level of technical knowledge but also a breadth of more general skills we enrich our whole labour market making more resilient, adaptive and ultimately creative.
Once an apprentice is trained they must be able to make a meaningful contribution to their local economy. For this to happen sensible decisions need to be made about the number and nature of training places offered at the local level. The factors that affect these decisions are hard for Westminster to fully comprehend or act upon, involving as they do, the social dynamic of small local business, local politics and local authority budgets.
The overwhelming consensus of our discussion was that modern apprenticeships need a local approach working in tandem with the devolution agenda. If metro regions are given the responsibility to identify the skills gaps in their locality and fill them, apprenticeship programmes could be designed to ensure both employment for young people and a strong local economy. Working at a local level would allow apprentices to be used as the creative powerhouses of local growth by ensuring that a local area can mobilise this currently underutilised asset to set the trajectory of its own growth.
Find out more about the RSA’s work on developing skills in local areas.
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