Karl's Speech at the Greater Lincolnshire Apprenticeship Celebration Ceremony

M. Mayor, Sherriff, apprentices, ladies and gentlemen… What do Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver the celebrity chefs, Alan Titchmarsh the Gardener and TV Presenter, Sir Alex Ferguson the former Manchester United Manager and closer to home our recently retired City Council Chief Executive Andrew Taylor all have in common? You might have guessed it: they all started out as apprentices!

Some of our greatest achievers in various work roles learnt their crafts whilst gaining on-the-job-experience, and, as this extraordinary event this evening indicates, across both our beautiful City and Country there are thousands – if not hundreds of thousands of people, like you all – who are following in their footsteps by becoming apprentices. 

I strongly believe in the value of apprenticeships.  They give both young people and adults an opportunity to learn skills in a work-based setting and will help and are helping to support this country’s economic wellbeing, and in the long term will offer a firm basis for long term sustainable growth across the economic sectors that will enable our country to maintain its position in the World as a successful, forward thinking economy that ensures our children’s wellbeing, and their children’s wellbeing in what is quickly becoming a world marketplace.

That is why it is an honour for me to have been invited to address you all today at this year’s Greater Lincolnshire Apprenticeship Celebration Ceremony and to outline a little how apprentices make an invaluable contribution to the economic growth of both our City and the wider Greater Lincolnshire in which our county City sits.

It should be remembered that we, as a Government or a Nation,  have not always delivered quality apprenticeships. Prior to 2010, the number of people not in education, employment, or training - the so-called NEETs - soared in the UK as the numbers for similar young people fell internationally. Between 2000 and 2009, the NEET rate for 15-19 year-olds in the UK rose from 8 per cent to almost 10 per cent, while the OECD average fell from 9.4 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Over the same period, the NEET rate for 20-24 year-olds in the UK rose from 15 per cent to over 19 per cent, while the OECD average fell slightly. By 2009, the UK had worse NEET rates than Greece, the Slovak Republic and Poland.  When we came to office as the Government in 2010 we realised that positive action needed to be taken and no-one can surely disagree that we indeed took that positive action.

We believe it is right to support businesses taking on an apprentice and I am glad eligible businesses can now receive a £1,500 grant for apprentices, and from April 2016 they will not have to pay National Insurance Contributions for apprentices aged under 25. This builds on abolishing the jobs tax for under-21s from April 2015 and is making it much easier for businesses to give a young person their first job opportunity and opening up more opportunities for our school leavers.

As a direct result of the action we are taking and the delivery of our long-term economic plan, apprenticeship numbers are rapidly increasing and have been for the last five years.  Here, in my City of Lincoln Constituency for example, there were 720 new apprentices in the 2009/10 academic year and 960 delivered in 2010/11. In the 2013/14 academic year we saw 1010 young people taking up apprenticeships in Lincoln – a total of 4,690 since 2010 and that number is increasing as we speak.

These apprenticeships are giving our young people experience in a whole range of areas: Agriculture, Horticulture and Animal Care; Business, Administration and Law; Construction and Planning; Education and Training; Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies; Health, Public Services and Care; Information and Communication Technology; Leisure, Travel and Tourism; Retail and Commercial Enterprise.

And as a City we in Lincoln are not alone: across our Country there has been the biggest ever boost with 2 million apprenticeship starts since the current Government came to Office just under 5 years ago. This great achievement fulfils the Government’s commitment to starting 2 million apprenticeships in this Parliament and underlines how seriously giving people the skills they need to be successful in life is taken by the Government I am proud to be a part of. It, no doubt, also helps to explain why youth unemployment in my constituency of Lincoln has been cut by over half since my election to Parliament: from 1035 in May 2010 to 505 in December 2014.

So tremendous progress has been made, but it certainly does not stop here. Indeed, a future Conservative Government would go even further, which is why we have set the ambition of three million quality apprenticeships by 2020 and to end youth unemployment. 

It is important we raise the status of apprenticeships and I want every young person leaving school to view an apprenticeship or going to university in equal merit. To achieve this we must ensure apprenticeships are of a high quality and valued by employers. I believe we are now achieving this.  Putting businesses in the driving seat over the design of apprenticeships is raising standards and ensuring apprenticeships are rigorous as well as responsive to employers’ needs.

In my view  apprenticeships are fantastic for three reasons:

First is the opportunity they can offer an individual. You can leave school or college and you find yourself at a crossroads. One path can lead to university, another to a gap year, another to work.  But there is another path: one which can lead you to becoming an apprentice, and the best thing is that you can earn and learn at the same time.

The second great thing about apprenticeships is the skills they provide. More and more employers are saying that graduates and school leavers do not have all the skills that they believe are necessary for the working world.  And university is not always the best option for everyone – sometimes an apprenticeship will be a better way of developing a young person’s skills in a way that is directly tailored to the workplace and the role that that individual wishes to pursue within that business, or sector. This does not mean less rigour or application, in fact far from it. Apprenticeships tend to be intensive, focussed and hands-on. In fact, under this Government, apprenticeship providers are now required to offer training in English and Maths up to the standard of at least a good GCSE.

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – apprenticeships are vital at a time when we have faced the biggest economic crisis any of us have known. Jobs and growth are the answer, and apprenticeships are a vital part of that answer. Particularly during my first couple of years as Lincoln’s Member of Parliament, I received numerous letters and emails from constituents telling me that they, or their children, had sent off hundreds of CVs to little avail. The most common feedback they received, if they received any, was that they lacked genuine work experience. This is especially true when lean times mean businesses are less willing to recruit younger employees.  But apprenticeships now last at least a year and, unlike some apprenticeships in the past, they are now meaningful, with those who undertake them able to use the skills learnt and real work experience within the same company, or take those skills and experiences with them when they move to different jobs in their working careers.  Apprenticeships are now more than ever at last equated with excellence.

I have seen for myself the excellent work of the apprentices at the Gelder Group, PK Automotive, the Lindum Group and just earlier today at Lincoln City Council where I joined their celebration and enjoyed their group presentation as part of National Apprenticeship Week.  The Gelder Group - a large construction-centric business operating in Lincoln and across Lincolnshire - have invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in developing a building trades skills learning centre used by people of all ages, and across the City there are a wealth of different sectors available for those wishing to undertake meaningful apprenticeships as well as specific ones too – such as technician apprenticeships at PK Automotive up behind Tesco on Wragby Raod.  Others are benefitting from excellent schemes up and down the country too, from large, international firms such as BAE systems, to Mercedes, from the NHS to Deloitte.

To build-in and secure social mobility, as well as feed economic growth, we need an apprenticeship programme at the heart of a vocational pathway that matches the quality of the well-trodden academic one.  Apprenticeships are good for the economy of our City, County and Country, good for employers and, most importantly, good for individual apprentices themselves. So I am delighted that in Lincoln and across the UK we are adding many more names to the list of people who have started glittering careers as apprentices. 

My congratulations to you all and do have a very enjoyable rest of your evening.