David Cameron speaks to staff at the JCB factory

The three main political parties are out to win the apprenticeships argument at election time.

England's three main political parties are out to win the apprenticeships argument at election time. But whose policies would best tackle the engineering skills gap? And what issues face those making apprenticeships work at the local level?

Steven Fox is 22 years old. He has five years' experience working at Simoco, a global mobile radio provider based in Derby. He's been earning from day one, and now has a permanent job as a software tester. But he is also on track to complete his engineering degree - and may one day gain his charter.

Fox was Simoco's first apprentice, joining the company in 2009 after his GCSEs. "Growing up in Derby, I must have gone past Simoco hundreds of times," he says. "But I never realised I might be able to get my degree and a career here."

From aerospace to telecommunications, electronics to fusion research, engineering apprenticeships are now widespread. They give young people the chance to gain both the head-knowledge and the hands-on experience to fulfil the roles employers need, without the price tag of university. This Parliament has seen its two millionth apprenticeship start, and many more have been promised by each of the three main parties in their General Election campaigns.

But all is not as buoyant as it could be aboard the good ship apprentice. Mike Norfield, CEO of Simoco Group, is himself a'former apprentice. In his opinion, "the current apprenticeships model has improved, but there's still more lip service than real action."

Party lines

So, as the election approaches, whose policies would best tackle the engineering skills gap, estimated by the Royal Academy of Engineering as a staggering 50,000 professional engineers every year to 2020? And what are the issues facing those making apprenticeships work on a local level?

Melanie Magee is the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Oxford East. She says: "I am a great supporter of David Cameron's plans for three million more apprentices in the next Parliament. I've employed apprentices myself and I'd like to see all industries offering schemes." She sees employers 'crying out' for apprentices in her local area, which includes many high-tech and research businesses in the Science Vale.

Just next door in Oxford West and Abingdon, Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon, says apprentices have been "such a popular policy - and a great success - led by [Business Secretary] Vince Cable". But she says: "It's critical we continue the apprenticeship grant scheme which is under threat from Conservative plans for the Education budget. As a former secondary physics teacher I want to ensure that we protect learning from cradle to college, not just from 5-16." The grant scheme gives companies incentive payments to take on apprentices.

Sean Woodcock, Labour parliamentary candidate for nearby Banbury and Bicester, wants to see the government giving tax incentives to companies taking on apprentices. "We will increase the number of apprenticeships, and as [Labour leader] Ed Miliband recently announced, require all firms that bid for major government procurement contracts to provide new apprenticeship opportunities for the next generation."

Yet quantity alone may not be the answer, says Paddy Patterson, an independent project advisor for apprenticeships. "The fact we have skills shortages in sectors like engineering and construction, two very traditional staples of the UK economy, tells us we have a mismatch between supply and demand at the very heart of the apprenticeship issue."

The level of qualification offered in apprenticeships has been a big factor. The Conservatives extended all apprenticeship courses to last at least one year, but still only two per cent of them are at the higher level - a figure Labour promises to increase.

Steve Gledhill works for Pera Training, which provides manufacturing apprenticeships and has co-developed a higher-level apprenticeship in research and development. He says: "Once we present the concept, employers quickly see that higher-level apprenticeships allow them to develop skills very fast, at a relatively low cost level."

It works well for Airbus Helicopters, whose apprentices train as aviation engineers. "We recruit practical young people, with the right academic qualifications, who are highly motivated towards a career in aircraft maintenance," explains Ian Marshall, training manager. "Apprenticeships enable us to train them in the 'Airbus Way' and familiarise them with our products, maintenance standards and safety culture from day one."

So why aren't all employers rushing to start apprenticeship schemes? Rob Wall, head of employment and education policy at employers' organisation the CBI, says employers want more simplicity in apprentice schemes, greater relevance, and "to be in the driving seat in design and delivery of apprentice programmes".

The Trailblazer scheme is one such initiative. Fujitsu's talent programme manager Sarah Bampton explains: "Our new degree apprenticeship, developed with other IT sector employers, will lead to an honours qualification. We get to grow our own graduates adding to their coding skills with business, professional and personal development." The government pays two thirds of the training and degree costs, while the company provides the remainder and a wage for the apprentice.

Supporting SMEs

But what about the small and medium size enterprises (SME), which in 2014 accounted for 60 per cent of the UK's private sector jobs? Simoco's Mike Norfield says: "There's a lack of process and support which makes it difficult for smaller employers." This is where growth in jobs could really take place - so what will the parties do?

"We wanted to focus on large business first to drive up the profile of apprenticeships," says LibDem candidate Moran. But, she agrees, "now we need to support SMEs. Our policy is to develop national colleges to help businesses offer specialist training, for example in the renewable energy sector. It will be like a new guild."

Labour hopeful Woodcock says that in his experience, SMEs are concerned they'll invest in an apprentice who then leaves for a larger company. "Big business can support SMEs here by forging positive links in the local business community and using and promoting local providers," he says. Some big businesses also train apprentices specifically to work in their supply chain.

Would additional higher-level apprenticeships mean more applicants? Vocational education and apprenticeships are still often seen as a second-best option to university - although employers see no class distinction, according to the CBI's Rob Wall. Moreover, IET accreditation is available to outstanding apprentice schemes, helping drive up standards.

An aspirational route

There's some way to go to convince parents, says Pera Training's Gledhill. "Schools do a fair amount to promote apprenticeships, but parents resist them as less aspirational than university."

The route from apprenticeship to permanent job is also well-trodden. While the continental system of apprenticeships is held up as an example, the UK's figures are already good. According to the CBI, 90 per cent of people who complete apprentice programmes will stay in employment - and of those about 70 per cent will stay with the training employers.

Layla Moran believes that the education system will change for the better because of the interest in apprenticeships - becoming more practical and real-world. And Sean Woodcock highlights Labour's plans for improving vocational training. "We will raise the status and quality of vocational education and skills through a new gold standard Technical Baccalaureate for 16 to 19-year-olds," he says.

The growth opportunities are huge at local level, according to Paddy Patterson. His non-profit company, Oxfordshire Apprenticeships, was founded to link businesses with schools - and the magic factor was being on the ground. "It involved a lot of legwork going to small businesses, a lot of listening and direct response. We worked hard to get a relationship with schools based on mutual interest - progression and achievement of students - and found willing ears. But it takes time and hard work." Today the company is helping deliver the City Deal promoting economic growth in Oxford and Oxfordshire.

Melanie Magee sees great opportunities to spread the word. "We need to have companies going in to schools and showing what engineers do - even while the children are still in their primary years. I particularly want to see more women choosing engineering apprenticeships. Those we have locally are really doing well."

While big-name companies like BT, BMW and Siemens find their apprenticeship schemes oversubscribed, candidates who miss out often don't realise there are countless other engineering employers with rewarding opportunities. Mike Norfield believes his company misses out on potential engineering apprentices who decide to take the university route - despite the almost inevitable debt.

Apprentice pay

The lure of earning while you learn is attractive, and many engineering employers pay over the apprenticeship minimum. But the National Union of Students' vice president Joe Vinson says apprenticeships aren't considered approved education with all the social security benefits that brings.

"It results in young people going to college to do a course they don't want to do because they can't afford to take up an apprenticeship," Vinson says, "or taking a low-paid job with no prospects."

Magee comments: "I think it needs to be reviewed. If it means we can get youngsters into jobs and careers, there will be more money in the economy - better for them and the employers." She says there are also ways that businesses can collaborate to help apprentices with travel costs, and that some councils offer a bus service.

The Labour party's pledge is to introduce a young person's discount card to give two thirds off bus travel - which councils and businesses can top up. Moran says:"It's important to me that we aren't asking young people to be independent and work in an apprenticeship and then remove all the support to be able to do it."

Apprenticeships have been in the spotlight for the last few years - and if the new government can solve some of the remaining issues then Steven Fox's experience in engineering is likely to become more common. "Many of my friends who went to university have a lot of debt," he says. "An apprenticeship is hard work and you have to show commitment, but it's a foot in the door. It's been the perfect route for me."'

E&T podcast: Engineering apprenticeships

Listen to the E&T interview with Scott Bredda, Technical Director at GE Precision Engineering, and Charles Marshall, the company's latest apprentice, talking about the apprenticeship scheme and the benefits it offers both parties.

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