Apprentices not just for sorcerers and Sugar

Anthony Browne
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THINK you know what an apprentice is? A working class youth in oily blue overalls with a spanner in his hands? The super self-confident types given missions impossible by Alan Sugar? Or Disney’s accident-prone mop-splitting sorcerer’s apprentice? Think again.

We don’t often see apprentices in London, and more rarely still in the glittering spires of the City itself. London has 14 per cent of the country’s population, but just five per cent of its apprentices. That’s because apprenticeships are seen traditionally as based around manufacturing or construction – not suitable for our white-collar workforce.

Many financial firms have a knee-jerk bias against apprentices, seeing them as too downmarket. One City figure caused outrage by saying his company had no need for apprentices because they didn’t need any photocopying. But such attitudes shed most light on those who hold them.

Increasingly, apprenticeships are geared towards the services sector, from retail to creative industries and financial services. City firms are slowly turning to apprenticeships, seeing them as a useful way to recruit and train talented youngsters – at the government’s expense. The total numbers are still small, but some high profile companies are opening their doors – the Bank of New York Mellon, Legal and General, Royal Sun Alliance and Zurich Insurance all take apprentices. They argue that it is in their own business interest to do so. It is not an act of charity, but it is still good for society – it helps tackle London’s high rate of youth unemployment, giving opportunities to talented youngsters.

It also benefits the sector as a whole, showing it is not an exclusive club of overpaid university graduates. That’s a myth-defying message to calm the wrath of the banker bashers.

We want to change the culture of apprenticeships in London. Working with national government and his own ambassador for training and enterprise, Tim Campbell, the Mayor is launching a campaign this week to get employers in London to see the advantages of apprenticeships – our ambition is to create over 20,000 apprenticeships in this current academic year.

The Mayor is doing his bit, creating over a thousand apprenticeships in the Greater London Authority group, but it is financial services that are our number one target.

You might in the near future get a letter from Boris urging you to take the apprenticeship plunge. But even if you don’t, you should still come on in. There aren’t any oily blue overalls in sight.

Anthony Browne is policy director for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.