Speaking at the Community Trade Union conference in Belfast at the weekend, Councillor Chris Burden told delegates that it was time to look back to an age when people could work where they lived and train on the job.
The council’s cabinet member for Education, Skills and Work called for a return to the days when school leavers could sign up to a paid apprenticeship that would equip them with practical skills while they worked.
“There was a time not that many years ago when education, skills and work all meant the same thing, and that can be summed up in one single word – apprenticeships. It is precisely what apprenticeships are for,” he said.
“I look around and I think about Wolverhampton. But it’s not just Wolverhampton – it’s every other place like Wolverhampton as well. It’s Barnsley, Stockport – all of these places predicated on an industrial history where you didn’t necessarily go to formal education.
“You did what was required for school and you went to a job where you learnt on the go, and that was the meaningful way to progress in your career. That’s how it worked in Wolverhampton for so many years and it was gradually torn apart and not replaced.
“Instead, a system was put in place where people were forced through formal education whether it worked for them or not. That did not work for Wolverhampton and it left our people behind,” he added.
“Standardised testing was the bane of Wolverhampton – people forced into a system where the opportunity was university or nothing. What we need to bring back is a time when people could work where they lived, learn whilst they were working, obtain manual skills and change the destiny of their lives.
“That is the value of an apprenticeship – a value that is long lost in this country. I look at our European counterparts in countries like France and Germany where they understand this.
“They understand that intelligence is not necessarily just reading a book. It is different for different people. And for lots of people, that could have been expressed far better in the form of an apprenticeship,” said Councillor Burden, who represents Fallings Park ward.
“We talk about high-quality apprenticeships. I was lucky because when I left school I did get the grades to go to university, but so many of my friends did not. And what they ended up in were ‘apprenticeships’ – these poor schemes where they were actually used as a form of indentured labour.
“They were paid less than the minimum wage because it came with ‘training’. And yet, after it finished they were given nothing towards a job, having laboured for three years underpaid. That is not an apprenticeship.
“It actually makes a mockery of the working class tradition of training people on the job. That’s what we need to bring life back to our working class communities,” he added.
Councillor Adam Collinge, vice-chairman of the council’s Strong Families, Children and Young People Scrutiny Panel, said: “Local conservatives have been advocating for more work in relation to apprenticeships and vocational training across Wolverhampton for some time, and this is central to our drive to create more opportunities.
“Despite having so many talented young people, unemployment – particularly youth unemployment – has been a major concern in Wolverhampton for many years.
“There’s no point wishing a solution; like other councils we need to see a concrete, joined up vision and strategy that has been sadly lacking.
“The council needs to plan for and create the right business environment across our city, from manufacturing to aeronautics, from big business down to our local shops and vital trades.
“It refers to becoming an ‘events city’ yet the sad reality is we have lost venues. The Civic Halls remain closed and our night-time economy has suffered,” he added.
“We also need to look at innovative ways to promote and link businesses with schools, colleges and vocational training routes, as well as the voluntary sector and local communities. This will help teach and match skills with business needs, further helping with apprenticeship and similar opportunities.”