Charlie Mullins OBE: Britain needs more apprenticeships, not degrees

The Pimlico Plumbers founder and CEO says Britain needs to get over its obsession with degrees

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My key idea: Britain needs to get over its obsession with degrees and consider apprenticeships as vital education pathways. Gone are the days when apprenticeships were only for ’naughty boys and girls’. Apprentices are not just a cheap labour supply for businesses to exploit. Like the true market-driven economy that we are, we immediately need to start producing the type of skilled workers that all industries need.

I‘ve been a plumber and heating engineer all my life. I was still in my teens when I started working for myself, and by the time I hit my early twenties, Pimlico Plumbers had spawned from the basement of an estate agent’s offices in, you guessed it, Pimlico in London. Today my company is a household name, employing 270 people and turning over £25m a year. It’s true that a lot of water has passed under Lambeth Bridge since we crossed it to set up on the south side of the river in the eighties, but there’s no denying that there’d be no Pimlico Plumbers today if I hadn’t once been a 15-year-old apprentice.

I owe so much to my apprenticeship and the people that straightened me out along the way. The people who made sure that I stuck with it, even when my mates were earning double what I was getting, working in shops and labouring on building sites. Who knows where I might have ended up if my mum hadn’t taken me for an interview at a local plumbing company?

I think it’s because I’m so indebted to the age-old institution of the apprenticeship that I’m determined to make sure the current generation of young people have the opportunity I was given.

Until recently apprenticeships were seen as second rate, the kind of thing you sent ‘naughty boys’ to do. And yet this makes no sense in a country awash with history and English graduates, but not enough plumbers, carpenters, electricians and bricklayers. I could go on, but you get the picture. Then there’s the fact that nearly a million young people are NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training). Can you believe that? They are so much a part of modern UK life that they’ve been given a catchy name.

So what do we do as a sane forward thinking nation to solve this problem? Like the true market-driven economy we are, we immediately start to restrict the number of university graduates we produce, and concentrate on producing the type of skilled workers that we need instead.

Well you’d think so, but we didn’t.

Instead we told all our young people that unless they got a degree from a university, any university, they were probably going to fail in life. Of course, we still needed tradespeople to do all the skilled work that doesn’t involve discussing Shakespeare, so we brought them in from abroad, while maintaining an unacceptable youth unemployment rate.

The solution to the skills shortage is undoubtedly a fully-funded, nationally-organised apprenticeship system, which means that every young person without a job or a further education place can continue their education by doing an apprenticeship. No ifs, no buts, no half measures - this is what’s needed. And given a decade, such a scheme will put an end to unemployment and fast-track the UK economy back to the premier league, by deleting our skills gap.

There are loads of arguments which all end with a big bill and excuses as to why it can’t be afforded. The thing is this: the bill is far greater if we don’t act, and continue to pay people to do nothing, while importing others to do the work.

I’m a realist. I understand that such sums of money are hard to stomach. But perhaps it can be made a little easier if we think about apprenticeships as education instead of work? Because that’s what they are.

If you stay at school the state pays for you to do A-levels, presumably because it’s seen as a good investment, so why not do the same for an apprenticeship?

We need to stop thinking that apprentices are just a cheap labour supply for businesses to exploit, because, believe me, if that ever was the case, it isn’t any more.

We must see them for what they are: a vital education pathway that is imperative to the future of UK PLC.

This is an excerpt from LondonLovesBusiness.com’s Securing Britain’s Ambition - read the full publication online now

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Securing Britain's Ambition

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Spot on Charlie! The degree no matter what philosophy has done so much harm to our education system and industry.

    Yes degrees are vital for STEM subjects but most people do not need a degree, A degree in media studies qualifies you for about nothing these days!

    Lets promote apprenticeship as the gold standard and the way for most students.

    Would also like to see the promotion of STEM based degrees for those able, with perhaps grants for the best students.

    An apprenticeship is often a very good basis for later study of the subject at degree level. Some of the best engineers and business people I know have qualified via this route!

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  • Young people do need to know they have more options than just going straight to university.

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