Sunday, 23 September 2012

Beauty and the Beast: the side of apprenticeships the government tries to hide

They’re constantly cited as a priceless first rung on the employment ladder in an economy with few jobs and one of the few, true saving graces that could stall and even reverse the escalating youth unemployment situation in Britain. 

Modern apprenticeship schemes have made a dramatic comeback in the last few years. Since 2006 the number of apprentices more than doubled, reaching  453,000 by the end of 2011. They’re the government’s palliative to a programme that hinges, in a seemingly oppositional way, on cutbacks instead of investment for growth.

That the coalition is advocating apprenticeships at a time when redundancy rates are high and the ratio of job applications to available jobs is in some cases over 50 to one could seem an attempt to tackle unemployment especially amongst young people, of whom the number now classed as not in employment, education or training (NEETS) has skyrocketed in the last year.

Apprenticeships have obvious benefits both to applicants and wider society. They provide the opportunity to learn a trade and develop skills that in theory should be a stepping stone to a stable, mapped out future career and ensure that countries retain a substantial amount of industrial experts and that knowledge of key skills are not lost.

The government believes that many apprenticeships lead to better chances of secure employment upon completion. On the Apprenticeship website they also state that on average apprentices earn around £170 a week, well above the minimum rate of £97.50 for 37.5 hours of work.

Yet there are growing concerns about the way some apprenticeships are operating in the UK, in the context of a recession-ridden economy. Some have suggested that motives for companies to hire apprentices in reality sometimes fit less with the idealised images. Instead of recreating the celebrated old-style German apprenticeships and implying that employers understand the need to adequately equip future generations with the knowledge to continue to provide key skills to society apprenticeships could serve a more self interested cost-cutting and profit-saving intent. 

The elephant in the room is the government’s current dismantling of the welfare system, whose focus on “workfare” is part of an enormous scheme to radically cut government spending. By pushing the growth of apprenticeships the coalition pays less in JSA and a reduced amount to apprentice employers in grants and learning fee costs, thereby serving their aim of spending cuts quite well. On top of this is the problem of how to ensure that apprenticeships equal secure employment at a time when industries are cutting back and shedding jobs. In this way, could apprenticeships be a sop thrown to make us think something is being done to tackle unemployment when in reality it is just masking the problem?

Michael, 16, from Liverpool, is currently employed at a large charity shop through the retail apprenticeship scheme which he enrolled on in July this year. He is concerned about the pay, his conditions at work alongside the value of his apprenticeship and is considering leaving the course due to financial worries that have worsened for himself and his family since starting as an apprentice.

“I work 37.5 hours a week for £100 a week with around 20 other staff, most of who are on some sort of work placement or volunteers. My auntie, who I live with, has lost around £70 a week in benefits due to me going on this apprenticeship because I’m now classed as being in full-time employment. The council has done things like deduct £3 per week from her housing benefit which I’ve been told I must now pay. I don’t get any separate travel expenses so I’ve also got to pay for the two hours travel per day out of my wages. By me going on this apprenticeship we’re worse off than when I was in college so I’m considering leaving the scheme and going back into education. People who are on an apprenticeship should be paid minimum wage because they are working for and benefitting the company. £2.60 per hour is pure slave labour.”

Michael’s concern over low pay is not alone. Searches on social media sites such as Twitter reveal pages of criticism over having to work for up to 50 hours a week on pay drastically below minimum wage. Adam Fisher, 18, wants to start an apprenticeship as he believes that in the long run the qualifications and training will be beneficial to him but is reluctant to leave his current job due to doubts over whether he can afford the large drop in income.

“Getting paid £2.60 per hour is ridiculous.  Skills training and practical experience could help me start a better career but I don’t know how I will survive off £97 a week for doing 40 hours at the moment” , he said. 

My cousin took an apprenticeship in gardening in 2006, earning the then minimum £80 per week. Yet after he qualified he continued to be paid the same rate even though he was legally entitled to at least minimum wage, arguably more considering he’d undertaken a two years skilled training course. Six years on, long after he completed his initial training and specialised in one area as well as now occasionally taking charge of the day-to-day jobs when his boss is away his pay is well below what it should be, to the extent that he is still sometimes not even being paid minimum wage.

Michael is not just worried about his pay. He thinks that after he has completed his 12 month apprenticeship the company won’t keep him on as a full time staff member.

“It’s been suggested to me that I won’t be kept on after I’ve qualified because they don’t have it in their budget. So basically the low pay now isn’t really justified because the company, like other apprentice employers, has no obligation to offer jobs even if apprentices successfully complete the course.  I think I’ll find it hard to find a job after the year with just this apprenticeship qualification because competition for jobs is so tough in Liverpool.  I think they’ve started taking on apprentices because we’re cheap labour. There hasn’t been much talk of creating actual jobs for people off the back of this.”

Losing your job to make way for another apprentice seems common practice in certain workplaces. Michael spoke of a friend who had undertaken an apprenticeship in hospitality and catering at a restaurant, only to be told there were no jobs for him after he successfully completed the course despite continuing to hire apprentices.

In some cases companies have even been reported to have gone so far as sacking staff members to replace them with the cheaper rate apprentices. In Manchester, Tom (not his real name) was employed full time as an estate agent until his boss told him that he was closing the business to move away. It was only when his dad drove past the same estate agents a few weeks later he had been made redundant to find not only that the shop was still open but that the team had been replaced with apprentices. Lacking sufficient former staff members, the potential for the apprentices to benefit from the scheme was also doubtful.

Earlier this year the Guardian reported that despite the haemorrhage of jobs from British manufacturing and engineering firms such as BAE Systems and Bombardier apprenticeship figures in the same industry had risen by 25%. One explanation could be that companies are safeguarding profits in the short term by taking on apprentices over already qualified members, instead of taking on both, a strategy that could be short-sighted for the company and risks dividing apprentices and existing employees.

It’s not just in these ways that some apprenticeships have come under fire. The core component of apprenticeships is adequate training to ensure that apprentices come away from their placement with adequate training and skills to do a specific job well. Employers, with financial help from the government should have an adequate training programmes in place for apprentices. However in some instances this has led to situation in which training providers, instead of focusing on the highest quality content,undercut each other to provide the cheapest service possible to employers to secure contracts.  Without substantial monitoring by the government to make sure this doesn't happen this means that apprentices can sometimes come away without adequate training to work their way up in their chosen field. In Michael’s case he believes that the training in his apprenticeship has been inadequate.

“The training I’ve been given has been pretty minimal; they trained  me up to work on the shop floor then stopped and college has said that they will just send me a work pack out to complete at home to obtain my NVQ in retail and functional skills. I applied to be a retail assistant; working on tills and focusing on customer service but the manager is using me to do all the odd jobs that no one else really wants to do, like cleaning the toilets and washing up used cutlery in the staffroom.

“There are good apprenticeships out there but I don’t think mine is one of them. If I had the opportunity to move around different shops, work in the head office or even in the fundraising department I’d have a much more rounded experience and a lot more opportunities to specialise and progress in retail. It seems like the managers haven’t bothered to create an adequate learning programme for the apprentices which makes me question their motives behind offering apprenticeships. I don’t think they took me on for the right reasons.

“The apprenticeship could help me quite a lot in terms of getting an entry level job because it proves that I have some experience but I’m missing a lot of the skills I’d have liked to have gained to work my way up in retail. I think after a few weeks of working at the shop I’d gained all the worthwhile experience it seems I’m going to ever get whilst working there so now I just feel like I’m being kept on as cheap labour. I don’t think that the qualifications themselves are that important in themselves either, it looks like they just added the paper qualification on to make it sound more official.”

Even Justin King, CEO of Sainsbury’s parent company (J Sainsbury PLC), has commented on the ambiguous makeup of some schemes doled out as “apprenticeships” to potential applicants.        
He said: “I believe the word apprentice has become hijacked. A lot of things masquerade as apprenticeships which are not what you and I would recognise as an apprenticeship – learning a skill over an extended period of time.”

Apprenticeships can be an invaluable platform into a skilled career, if they offer the right sort of training and prospects. Yet in some instances in Britain the term acts as little more than a cover for government-endorsed cheap labour that struggles to ensure secure employment for all those who successfully complete the courses or even substantial training. The existence of unscrupulous, self-interested apprentice employers suggests that the government is not actively ensuring that apprenticeships are offered for the right reasons.

 Apprenticeships should be equipping people with adequate practical experience and knowledge to become future experts in their fields. They should also be financially practical, which the £2.60 rate is not, especially to those with existing jobs and who have people who are dependent on their income. To make someone choose between practical skills development and continuing their existing job with which pays enough to make ends meet denies many people the opportunity to become specialists in a certain role.

They should not be a tool to reduce companies’ overheads, threaten existing employees jobs and offer false hope of secure, long term employment to apprentices. They should also not act as cut price JSA which could keep people in a continuous apprenticeship cycle in a society bereft of jobs or as an indicator that the government is doing something to tackle the UK’s unemployment problem. Without investment to create long-term jobs and develop industries apprenticeships can’t resolve this issue. What they are doing is hiding the reality of joblessness, particularly the real levels of youth unemployment in the UK. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Community unions could offer a lifeline in the real "broken Britain"

Manchester’s unemployment rate is at its highest in 12 years. 84,600 people are now claiming JSA in the city, almost 30% of whom have been unemployed for more than 6 months. For young people, those without jobs have spiralled in number since 2000, with almost 900% more 18-24 year olds now jobless and not in education or training.

Yet unemployment is only part of a bleak picture that has been etched onto our contemporary landscape. Talk of the all too real possibility of a privatised health service, the accelerated marketisation of education and the obliteration of welfare support is now so widespread that they have become national clich├ęs.

It’s also an almost grotesque, parody-type situation where ATOS, the company driving life-changing cuts to disabled people’s benefits are seen, if only by a small yet powerful few, as a responsible sponsor of the Paralympics.

For increasing numbers of people in Manchester and across the UK, the ability to fight back en mass against regressive attacks on their lives is complicated by the fact that they exist outside secure employment. Employment brings with it the opportunity for union organisation and all the resulting benefits such as easy channels of communication and organisation, even if this sort of organisation is facing more difficulties of its own today.

At a time when more people are vulnerable due to existing outside the scope of this form of organisation, whether they are unemployed, students or retired, the emergence of another sort of union in Manchester is even more relevant than ever.

Unite’s community union scheme, launched earlier this year, brings people outside workplaces together and offers a concrete platform on which to organise and access support services. Encouraging groups to become established around the country , Unite have in a way reignited interest in the idea of community unions that dates back (on a major level) in England at least to the 1930s.  This was when the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement formed amidst mass unemployment and poverty to improve the conditions of the jobless galvanising the support of hundreds of thousands at its marches.

Although created by Unite, this sort of union is different in that it operates on a more grass roots level, allowing people who may feel pushed to the margins of society to come together and find a strong political voice of their own. For 50p per week the community unions give members the chance to come together to form strong communities which take a stand and push for co-ordinated, bottom-up action to create a better and fairer situation.

They also offer support services such as legal advice, cv and letter application writing, interview tips, debt counselling, welfare benefits check up and hardship grants.

Manchester is one of the cities with its own branches of the community unions, Since being created in June the Manchester and Salford branch now includes subgroups in Salford, North, South and East Manchester.

Tom Barlow, one of the organisers, thinks that Unite’s community unions are especially important in our current time of recession and reactionary political policies.

“community unions have always been a relevant idea but im glad that a major union is now fully behind them on such a large scale basis. These unions are comprised of some of the most vulnerable people in society who are without a stable workplace and thus the potential for organised representation that comes with that. With growing unemployment these people need this representation now more than ever.

“We’ve got a lot of people in our groups who were active in unions whilst in work but have lost their jobs. Lots of people who were formerly employed who just can’t get work at the moment. The response we’ve had so far is positive. The union isn’t allied to any specific political project which I think helps it to have a lot broader membership base that’s made up of a more diverse set of people who despite whatever differences they may have in some ways all believe that action needs to be taken to stop what is happening at the moment in Britain. 

“We know there is a lot to campaign about but  we also understand we need  to be focused so that we have a better chance of achieving change. At the moment we are concentrating on building around the ATOS campaign, the healthcare company whose work assessment is threatening the lives of those with disabilities. Recent national studies have claimed that numerous people have committed suicide as a result of ATOS's decision made about their benefits and suitability for work. At the moment we are concentrating on ATOS's attacks on those who receive disability allowance. The cuts are absolutely devastating people’s lives. We hope to start focusing on fuel poverty, council tax and housing benefit cuts as well as focusing on the TUC demo on the 20th October.

“Community unions allow the unemployed, elderly and students to focus on issues at a local level then build out and link with other branches and unions around the country so that we have and feed into a strong web of support that can’t easily be picked apart, for example, by governmental policies, like what happened in the 1980s.”

The Greater Manchester Unite Community Union will be holding a public meeting on 18th September at Friends Meeting House. More details can be found here and via Unite.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

NEET unemployment in Preston hits shocking levels

A short article that I wrote for the Lancashire Evening Post (proper posts will be going up this weekend!):

Youth unemployment in Preston has risen 800% in the last year, according to figures released this week.

The ONS data released on 12th September revealed that the number of young Prestonians in between the age of 16-24 not in employment, education or training (NEETS) has rocketed by 120 people in between August 2011 and 2012, from 15 to 135.

The statistics also highlighted a continued rise in general unemployment to almost eight per cent, a figure that has climbed five per cent in the last five years.

Mark Hendrick, Labour and Cooperative MP for Preston, perturbed by the figures

He said: “The dramatic increase in NEETS is terrible, these figures are far too high. Young people need work to get valuable practical job experience. Without these opportunities they can't embark upon a secure career path, which could seriously affect their prospects in the future.

“These figures highlight that employment rates and economic growth will not be achieved under the current government's policies. “