Too much supply, too little demand.

Hey, Britain: Skip the Degree, Learn a Trade

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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All three of Britain's major political parties have pledged in recent weeks to boost the availability of apprenticeships -- paid employment incorporating both on- and off-the-job training that leads to a nationally recognized certification.

It's a welcome counterbalance to the drive in recent years to push as many young adults as possible onto the university conveyor belt, leaving a pile of unemployed and arguably unskilled graduates littering the country.

Just 112,000 people under age 19 started apprenticeships in the U.K. in 2013, down from 117,000 in 2010, according to data compiled by the Office for National Statistics. By contrast, British universities took in almost 388,000 students under age 20 last year, up from 373,000 three years earlier, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Chuka Umunna, the Labour Party's business secretary, told his party conference in Manchester a couple of weeks ago that Labour plans to have as many young adults go into apprenticeships as enter universities. "We have to do away with the snobbery that says an apprenticeship is not as important as university," he said. Michelle Donelan, who will stand as the Conservative Party candidate in Chippenham, Wiltshire, in the May 2015 election, told her party conference in Birmingham last week that too many youngsters are "pushed on the tidal wave to university because other options were lacking."

About 12 million Britons are classified by the statistics office as having higher-level academic qualifications. That's 38 percent of the U.K. population, up from just 17 percent in 1992. This is the result of government policies to boost the university population, even as a reclassification program turned hundreds of colleges and polytechnics into universities, reinforcing the cachet of a university degree while undermining its value. (About a third of Americans have at least a bachelor's degree, according to U.S. Census data.)

Gordon Birtwistle, who was 67 when he surprised himself by getting elected as a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament in 2010, started his working life as an engineering apprentice. He says "the word apprentice wasn't in the dictionary of parliament" four years ago. He is championing the cause at Westminster. Speaking at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow this week, he says schools are doing their pupils a disservice by focusing almost exclusively on universities:

Schools do not try to convince children to be apprentices. Careers advice in schools is virtually non-existent and is delivered by a teacher who has only ever been a teacher and who wants to get as many children into university as possible.

John Allan, chairman of the National Federation of Small Businesses, agrees; he cites a survey showing that 86 percent of teachers would actively oppose a smart kid pursuing an apprenticeship rather than a college degree.

The U.K. apprentice system has been plagued by cheating, notably supermarket chains pocketing the 1,500 pounds the government pays as a subsidy to companies taking on youngsters, but then using them as fodder at the cash registers rather than teaching them a trade. But there's only so much the government can do; companies must take the lead in training the workforce of the future. Birtwistle argues that big engineering companies, for example, should train more workers than they need. These workers will then find their way to smaller companies in their supply chains, thus ensuring quality throughout their industry.

Some are embracing change. PwC, a global company that offers professional services ranging from accounting to cyber-security systems, has shifted its hiring practices after deciding that its graduate intake was creating a workforce that lacked diversity. Its website offers 10 entry-level positions in its tax advisory department, for example, in 10 different U.K. locations. Rolls Royce, the U.K. aerospace company, is offering 13 apprenticeships at three of its factories.

The university isn't the best post-school destination for everyone. Many kids would be better off learning a trade in the workplace than inhabiting a classroom or a lecture hall for three or four years. Moreover, a university degree is no guarantee of employment: According to the statistics office, 9 percent of the recently graduated were unemployed in 2013, up from 5 percent in 2008.

With British universities charging annual tuition of 9,000 pounds ($14,500), up from 1,000 pounds in 1998 and nothing before that, the days when a university degree offered a cheap or free path to a career are long gone. The U.K. needs to promote apprenticeships so that, as Birtwistle says, the young adults of today can learn the skills of tomorrow from those who have the skills of the past.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net