I’ve long thought that the dissolution of industry in Britain, which was positively encouraged by the Thatcher and Major governments and then shamefully ignored by New Labour, was a tragedy. The factories and engineering talent which, in a previous age, made Britain “the workshop of the world” offered job security, reasonable pay and conditions, and a workforce with a reasonable degree of confidence in their futures. True, many jobs were semi-skilled and incredibly repetitive, but the same is true of the McJobs in call centres, supermarkets and retail chains that millions of workers have moved to. With the near-abolition of industry, we have not only made life for workers significantly harder, but we have closed many skilled professions that existed outside financial institutions and universities.
The attitude of British society towards the fields of engineering and the wider sciences has been scandalous. Since the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson talked of “the white heat of technological revolution” nearly half a century ago, we have inspired our youth so little that we have a nationwide shortage of scientists. I was (and still am) talented at the sciences myself, achieving straight A* grades. Why haven’t I opted for a career as a physicist? I see that our society wouldn’t value my work enough. Potential engineers say the same, but their situation is worse.
So what has prompted these two paragraphs of well-worn whinging about our “post-industrial” economy? The Prime Minister’s statement that apprenticeships “should be the new norm” for the oft marginalised 50% of school leavers who choose not to go to university. As usual, Cameron has said something which sounds like a nice outcome, but has no intention of taking action to achieve it. Apprenticeships are, or should be, a highly valuable alternative to university degrees, and ones which have equal prestige in the minds of employers, government and employees. And, as is so often my view on industrial policy, we should copy from the country which does it best: Germany.
I would clarify that apprenticeships do not necessarily depend manufacturing, but in places like Germany we see that this is the sector in which they are most effective. Regional and multinational firms will grant training to young workers that may last for 7 years, possibly longer. They make large investments in these workers, and find that it pays off: German industry has an unparalleled reputation, and the highly skilled workforce often feel loyalty to their employers that rarely exists elsewhere.
If Britain is serious about creating a productive, sustainable future for ourselves, we will have to devise smart, holistic solutions for our problems. In this case, a new scientific and industrial revolution is needed to meet our green commitments; rebalance our economy and FE system; and allow us to still compete in the global economy. We’ve a lot to offer, if we care to try.