It has been announced that the government plans to create an extra 35,000 apprenticeship places in the next year, as an effort to combat the recession that is well underway. Gordon Brown has pledged a whopping £140 million to create these places at colleges around the UK.
Isn’t this great news? Well, yes and no. Apprenticeships are excellent ways of getting young people into skilled work, such as bricklaying, stonemasonry and carpentry, among others. It also potentially creates some modest growth in teaching jobs. But it remains to be seen how this new initiative is much more than putting a little PR-friendly plaster on a gaping knife wound. Indeed, this recession itself was caused by the grossest excesses of big business interests supported by their lackeys in government – and now they want us to believe that their plans to ‘rescue’ the economy are definitely going to work!
So what’s problematic about this plan? Firstly, in the past, most apprenticeships took place as informal on-the-job training for young workers. After finishing school, a young person would get a job, and then be mentored by more experienced workers in skills of their chosen trade. Often this would be enforced by the union at the workplace, making sure that there would be no outsourcing or non-union workers coming into the shop from outside.
There are no safeguards like this any more, with employers looking to squeeze as much labour out to dodgy subcontracted companies as possible, while apprentices are groomed for setting up their own businesses as ‘independent contractors’.
What’s more, although apprentices still work while they study, a number of workplace rights, including the right to equivalent pay for equivalent work, do not apply. This means that apprentices can work long hours, doing complex and dangerous work for barely minimum wage. Although some still live with their families, many apprentices have to feed themselves on these paltry wages and long hours. The decline of the UK shipbuilding industry is a prime example of how this is definitely not the way to rebuild a shrinking and aging workforce.
Over-worked teachers are another problem. Fresh from ensuring that class sizes and workloads continue to rise for regular school teachers, Skills secretary John Denham is now threatening the specialised teachers needed to teach apprenticeships with the same sort of long hours and bigger class sizes that their contemporaries in schools are dealing with.
Not all good news, then. Despite gains for some, these new plans will inevitably leave many with false hopes and tough times at work. The IWW stands firm with both apprentices and teachers alike, and is committed to backing both today’s workers, and those of the future. The only way we can do this is by ensuring that all workers stay strong together, in spite of recessions, and in opposition to those who cause them.