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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

President's Blog: Investing in Apprenticeships

by Peter Heginbotham, President of Greater Manchester Chamber

Much has changed since the days of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great who used peasants as target practice. These days Czars are a much less harmful lot. Or are they? The recent spat between Charlie Mullins (apprentice turned entrepreneur) and Alan Sugar regarding the latter’s role as an enterprise czar, a clear case of sugar mixing it with spice, raises the question.

Mullins says Sugar has no understanding of apprenticeships at all. I suppose that if The Apprentice is anything to go by this may be true, as it bears no resemblance to real business life. The recruitment process in the programme would be an employment lawyer’s dream and the successful apprentices are not that at all. It’s just good TV, not good reality. The question is whether Sugar’s elevation from stardom to czardom has done apprenticeships any good?

It may highlight the concept but it mis-sells it at the same time. The best training comprises the right balance between qualifications, basic skills and on-the-job learning. I suspect apprenticeships still conjure up in the minds of many the image of masses of young people in dirty overalls working in large engineering works, many of which no longer exist. In truth however, apprenticeship of one sort or another is vital. Ironically, there are more people engaged in modern-style apprenticeships than there were serving the traditional apprenticeships in the days of the massive heavy engineering works. No longer is the trainee indentured to the individual. Now the trainee is contracted to the company.

I believe that presently any available public money for investment in the economy should go direct into infrastructure. That doesn’t just mean physical assets but equally includes people and their training, particularly the young. My own profession still uses successfully the concept of apprenticeship for the training of lawyers. I have always informally used a similar principle with non-lawyers and 51% of current administration and support staff at Davis Blank Furniss came to us straight from school or college, 38% having started as office juniors. We - the businesses, the economy and the young people - can all gain by this kind of system. And these days apprenticeship can be achieved more flexibly, for instance through the Chamber’s Greater Manchester Apprenticeship Company. It would be a shame if the Mullins-Sugar row damaged the reputation of apprenticeship. Zany czardoms are a gimmick disguising the qualities of the things they are intended to promote.

Any employer keen to find out more information about taking on an apprentice or about the advice and help available should call 0161 233 2656 or email: for more information.

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