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I’m an apprentice movie star so I’ll be a real movie star next week, right?

The apprenticeship-driven recovery strategy was a great strategy for politicians and training providers. But why are they now surprised that a supply-side-only economic measure has failed to create any actual jobs? They never do…

Follow the logic – I’m going to be an apprentice film star. And then if in three weeks’ time I’m not a real film star I’m going to have a temper tantrum. Or have I misunderstood the ‘apprenticeships solve the recession’ theory?

Not sure if this is still true but it was one of those questions people ask and when you hear the answer you see the question completely differently. So who is the biggest provider of apprenticeships under the Westminster scheme? It might have changed but a bit over a year ago the answer was McDonalds. And instantly your vision of young people learning a life-long skill through a serious process of learning at the hands of someone already skilled in that trade melts away before your eyes. Actually, many of them are ‘learning’ how to be ‘food service technicians’ (or some such), probably on not much more than minimum wage.

For a long time when I was lobbying for the universities I used to find myself apparently in arguments with some on the left on the issue of education and training. They would say ‘but this is just elitism – what about a proper manual trade?’. That ‘apprenticeships, not graduates’ argument spread quite widely with the college sector being very keen to jump on the back of the argument. Universities are elitist, both in the good and bad senses. But, in the bad sense, so are colleges. They too lobbied at senior level for policies that built up their empires first and only afterwards worried about what to do with the poor suckers on whose backs the empire was built.

Let me be as clear as I can here – I am a giant supporter of both further and higher education. Two close family members now have degrees only because colleges offered them an alternative route into learning. And universities, when being what they ought to be, are at the heart of a decent advanced society, doing much of our thinking for all of us in sciences, arts and social sciences.

However, both are also in the pile-’em-high game of creating demand for their goods in any way possible so that they might boost their income, with (in some cases) minimal interest in what exactly that demand is for. In the university sector it is the ‘big con’ of ‘business studies’. I am sick of people picking on media studies or public administration (or golf course management) as the so-called ‘mickey mouse’ subjects. Business studies is not so much an academic discipline as a marketing gimmick for rapid university expansion.

But – and this is a but I hold to – even in those subjects there is a core element of developing the capacity to think, to reason, to gather information and to analyse the information. These are transferable in the proper sense. The ‘vocational education is real education’ lobby has seemed to me quite content to create false belief in what it is and what it is for. It has resulted in lots of similar pile-’em-high training courses, but because these are ‘vocational’ many were simply basic training. If there are no jobs in the areas where that basic training is applicable, too often the training has no other use.

And if the colleges are bad, the private providers are worse. I visited a good training provider recently and I knew it was good because over and over it explained a philosophy of helping people to gain a real, deep understanding using modern technology and proper materials. And it was very expensive to provide. Meanwhile, McDonalds are offering people the ability to learn how to operate a till, clean the toilets and possible place frozen burgers on a conveyor belt. This is a betrayal of the very idea of apprenticeship. If you can do it in a week, it isn’t an apprenticeship.

I have watched the rise in the professional trainer over the last 15 years. The rhetoric is always about helping ‘kids’ get ‘a chance’. But the reality is that a large professional bureaucracy does remarkably well out of it. By far the biggest winners out of the post-New Labour ‘education, education, education’ mantra are managers in training and education providers. In some Nordic countries it is illegal to make a profit out of education and training. Hurray, I say.

But it isn’t just about the finance of training, it is also the ideology. Some people are now turning on the Scottish Government because apprentices are not getting jobs. No, of course they’re not. And all the politicians are complicit. I have long-standing bets with a load of people stating that this would happen – the idea that you can create a job out of nothing by training a person for that job works in a few cases. A very few cases. And those all relate to giving people training to do something with high skill and knowledge content. For the rest, it was (a) a wheeze to make politicians sound like they had answers to the recession and (b) a way of shovelling large numbers of young people about in a way that appears purposeful (or at least more purposeful than the dole). That large volumes of jobs would appear as a result was not a serious possibility. In fact, the real hope was that if ‘apprenticeships’ could put a generation in a sort-of holding tank for three years then the economy would be coming out of recession and everything would be fine. So that’s two unsustainable myths right there.

Apprenticeships are great. When they’re real. I know a number of local tradesmen who spent their four years learning at the hands of someone who themselves learned for four years at the hands of… You get the idea. In fact, I was chatting to one of them recently who was saying that actually he could probably do with another apprentice but he’s got two and he couldn’t really do the job properly with more than that. A thousand people signed up in a week? Only those who peddle statistics benefit from that.

The apprenticeship obsession of 2008-2012 had two important uses. It made lots of middle class people in the education and training sector wealthier and it gave politicians and policy-makers the illusion of having a plan. But that was all it was. Otherwise it was just more supply-side economics, the failed economic ideology that the elite giving money to itself will always fix everything. That people are now expressing surprise it didn’t work is beyond me.

Of course it didn’t work. If giving people a certificate automatically created a job for them then the world would have no economic problems. Ever.

Robin McAlpine