Our country needs apprenticeships
Dear Sir, — In your columns last week (5th July), your correspondent Glynn Robinson welcomed increasing interest in apprenticeships in the engineering trades and professions and lamented the obsession with degree education in that field, which has developed over recent decades. I support his analysis and conclusions.
In the 1950s, I was fortunate to follow a well-established path from school into an engineering apprenticeship (in Manchester, as it happens), which included about a dozen varied short experiences on the shop floor and in design offices, etc.
This was combined with weekly release for study at local technical colleges to fill out one’s training to skilled and employable level.
By way of example, in the year (1949) of my stepping upon this ladder, the company took on a total of 300 apprentices of all grades, including a small cohort attracted mainly from parts of the erstwhile Empire.
The whole national scene in these matters was flourishing and contributed to the world reputation of British engineering companies and products.
A few years later, the rot set in. From memory, and in approximate order, there were several causes that contributed to the “apprenticeship disaster”.
First, just after the war and with Attlee in charge, the engineering trade unions were generally in a very stroppy mood and, following the recent privations, felt that the world owed their members a living.
Also, the then pre-eminence of British vehicle and ship manufacture could be taken for granted and used as a bargaining tool to increase wages. The national car industry was subjected to frequent industrial and political strikes and go-slows to kick the management.
Of course, our export markets soon collapsed and this created a wonderful opportunity for Japan, Germany and other competing nations to rise from their industrial knees after destruction during the war and to show that, in fact, we did not have a monopoly in sound engineering.
Very soon, there were no profits in the UK industry to invest in new models and methods, and to move away from selling rust buckets to a complaining but compliant national market.
Enforced continued production of pre-war designs of cars had suspensions adequate for British roads, but would soon collapse into scrap on many roads around the world, where a vast export market lay.
Breakdowns occurred frequently and could be an insoluble problem in remote areas of use.
This situation had effects nearer to home. In the late 1960s, I ordered a new Morris Mini from my local dealer in Cheshire for delivery in three weeks.
When I returned after that time to enquire if I could pick up my new car, the dealership had switched to Honda!
The dealer told me that he could take several orders every day for Minis, but could not get any idea of when he would receive them from the factory.
On the other hand, Honda had 1,000 small cars stored in UK docks for delivery overnight, and another 500 due the following week.
Furthermore, largely from its bikes, Honda already had an excellent reputation for engineering quality, economy and reliability. For the dealer and customers like myself, it was a “no brainer”.
Similarly, in shipping, the UK had a very strong position in the market just after the war.
However, again, relevant unions felt themselves to be fire-proof and able to indulge with impunity in endless go-slows, demarcation disputes, work-to-rules, etc, which resulted in much delayed deliveries to customers.
If recalled correctly, there was constant guerrilla warfare between welders and riveters on some pumped-up ruse or another, and some orders ran so late as to be cancelled when a ship was part-built.
It is not easy for us normal citizens to grasp but, if you were the owner of a shipping line and had contracted to pay millions of pounds for a new ship to be delivered on time to begin earning its keep, it would be pretty annoying if it arrived months or years late.
No wonder that potential orders for our yards went instead to Italy, Germany and wherever, where the companies and workforces realised full well that the future bread and butter of their yards and families depended upon reliable deliveries in line with contract.
Some unions were shortsighted enough to focus on apprenticeships generally, criticising them as cheap labour that should be paid full trade union rates.
This woeful attitude quite ignored the obvious fact that to turn a school leaver into a skilled operative (of any level) costs a company a good deal of money, which can be classed legitimately as sound investment in that company’s future.
This truism cut no ice with union hotheads. If they went on strike to make their point, the obvious company reaction was to stop taking on apprentices.
Then woolly-headed politicians entered the scene.
Despite these and other post-war difficulties, such was the admirable success of British industry in world markets that demand grew to the point where some companies could not recruit enough skilled staff to produce sufficient goods to meet growing demand.
Those that had any staff, arguably in excess of minimum requirements, became accused of “hoarding” them.
The politicians determined to deal with this perceived (capitalist) “scandal” by imposing a “head-count tax” on all staff. As noted above, apprentices are an overhead cost to a company, not a profit centre, and so out they had to go on these grounds also.
Then we suffered Blair and his policy of “university for all”. This, from a man and a class of national politicians of whom most would not know one end of a crankshaft from the other.
The short story is that having lost their apprentice intakes, the survival strategy of most local technical colleges was to transform themselves into universities.
This might well be beneficial for the pay grades and status of the principals and staff, but these colleges are thought to have found it a struggle to compete in degree league tables and some outcomes were and remain disappointing.
Certainly, without a good input stream of youngsters in apprenticeships, their set-ups generally cannot be expected to provide the streams of skilled personnel needed by productive, profit-producing, middle industry.
Come back indentured apprenticeships – Your Country Needs You. — Yours faithfully,
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