Mike Tomlinson and the medaeval apprenticeship model

Mike Tomlinson wants to reintroduce apprenticeships, according to an interview in the Telegraph today (registration required). The key quote:

  • “At 14, some students will spend up to two days a week in the workplace… Junior apprenticeships could easily happen at 14. A lot of people become disengaged at 14, if not before.”

I think this is the most promising element in his whole report. The nation did itself a grave disservice when it let apprenticeships die in the period 1950-1970, and I’m all in favour of bringing them back.

Every few years somebody tries to reintroduce apprenticeships; the current attempt is called “New Apprenticeships”, but I wonder if you’ve even heard of it. There are two big barriers to reintroduction, and I seriously worry that Mr Tomlinson has the clout to overcome either.

First is the ingrained national belief that vocational education is for the less intelligent (meaning, really, the working class). This is an old one so I’ll spare you the sociology lecture and restrict myself to a short scream of rage.

Second is whether the government is really prepared to finance apprenticeships. They are a lot more expensive than locking the same kids up in a classroom for 30 hrs a week. Anyone over 40 may be a little surprised to hear that; I certainly remember apprentices earning real wages, and being able to flash them around in the pub while I was still on pocketmoney. So what’s changed?

The short answer: mobility of labour. The heyday of industrial apprenticeships was between the wars, at a time when few people would choose to migrate outside the town of their birth. For reasons of both culture and economics, jobs where frequently for life. It made sense for an employer to invest in educating a young person for five years because they expected a 50-year return on the investment.

Most young people now consider it a point of honour to change jobs every 6 months to 2 years. If we want employers to participate in apprenticeships in future, we are going to have to remunerate them adequately for the task. I’d guess that for a full-time post we are looking at a figure of £10,000 per year, on top of anything being paid to the apprentice. Tomlinson’s proposed two days per week would reduce this to £4,000 per year.

It’s worth remembering that the industrial apprenticeship model we remember is an historical anomaly of the industrial era. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, upwardly mobile parents expected to pay employers to provide apprenticeships for their sons. The economics were similar to those that pertain today. Skilled people were in short supply. They were generally self-employed and highly mobile. Those who had been taught well, by an acknowledged master, could command high wages.

So will parents stump up the cash now? Seems unlikely given that we are looking at a cost significantly higher than university tuition fees. Will the government? Someone will whisper “election” and they’ll run for cover at the tax implications. Will apprentices themselves accept a level of debt of, say £20,000 at age 19? Logically they should; it’s a much better investment in their future than a mortgage after all. But that’s going to be a very, very tough sell for Mr Tomlinson.


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