unionlearn: Quality and equality of opportunity – no ifs, no buts….

Trade unions have a long tradition of supporting training and development in the workplace, not least through direct support for apprentices.

I always remember how it struck a chord with me when I first read that one of the main debates at the TUC’s founding conference nearly 150 years ago was the need to give greater priority to technical skills and apprenticeships.

Union support for high quality apprenticeships has been a constant ever since.

And it should not come as a great surprise that some of our most respected apprenticeship programmes are to be found in companies where employers and unions work in partnership on this agenda.

There are two key aspects to the union role.

“Celebrating our very best apprenticeship programmes and promoting best practice by unions and employers on this front is of course a number one priority for us”

One involves negotiating agreements with the employer to embed quality training standards and decent pay and conditions.

But just as important is the role played by union representatives in mentoring and supporting young people through their apprenticeship.

In recent years the Union Learning Fund[1] has been influential in spreading this best practice across more unionised workplaces as has been the pioneering work of union learning representatives.

The TUC has also established an Apprenticeship Charter[2] setting out what we believe are the key principles of a high quality placement.

In my current position as Director of unionlearn, the learning and skills arm of the TUC, my working day constantly interacts with the apprenticeship agenda.

Celebrating our very best apprenticeship programmes and promoting best practice by unions and employers on this front is of course a number one priority for us.

But at the TUC we also recognise that there are huge challenges to overcome if we are to make high quality apprenticeships an option for all our young people wishing to pursue this route after school.

The reality is that we simply don’t have enough employers offering high quality apprenticeship places in the UK compared to the situation in many other European countries.

Demand easily outstrips supply and too often those who face disadvantage in the labour market are the same people who get the short straw when applying for apprenticeships.

“Demand easily outstrips supply and too often those who face disadvantage in the labour market are the same people who get the short straw when applying for apprenticeships”

The forthcoming apprenticeship levy and the new Institute for Apprenticeships offer an opportunity to embed quality apprenticeships across all parts of the economy in the coming years.

In taking this forward I believe we can learn much from our European neighbours with the most successful apprenticeship systems, where judicious regulation and effective employer-union partnerships combine to make high quality apprenticeships much more widely available.

Equality and diversity issues have also continued to plague apprenticeships and unions have consistently pressed government and employers to put equality of access on an equal footing with other priorities.

A few alarming statistics indicate the extent to which some young people are marginalised when it comes to successfully applying for apprenticeships that lead to the best paid jobs.

For example, only 3 per cent of people starting engineering apprenticeships are accounted for by young women. [3]

At the same time they are disproportionately represented in apprenticeships in those low paid sectors where contravention of the apprenticeship national minimum wage is rife.

It is also of concern that the latest statistics shows that 38% of young black women do not go on to complete their apprenticeship compared to 30% of young white women.[4]

Unions have negotiated practical steps to help employers better support underrepresented groups, including tackling workplace discrimination and discriminatory recruitment practices which tend to exclude women and BME candidates.

It is essential that the government’s ongoing reform programme also makes this a number one priority and says loud and clear that quality and equality of opportunity should be mutually reinforcing features of all apprenticeship programmes.

[1] https://www.unionlearn.org.uk/union-learning-fund

[2] https://www.unionlearn.org.uk/charter-apprenticeships

[3] http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/education-committee/apprenticeships-and-traineeships-for-16-to-19-year-olds/written/15592.pdf

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/484985/1314_E_D_-_Annex_Tables_FINAL.xls


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