Skills, skills, skills. We’ve heard this phrase mentioned a number of times by colleagues in government since the publication of the ‘Skills for Jobs White Paper’, in January 2021.

The party’s focus on ensuring that we have a workforce ready for tomorrow is the right approach, one that I wholly welcome.

I represent the rural constituency of North Norfolk, one filled with talent but not always with the opportunity or skills in abundance, to meet the demand we have.

An all too often seen issue around the country. We have an acute shortage of dentists, mental health practitioners, and carers, for instance – in fact pretty much across the board in healthcare we do not have enough trained professionals, something that my constituents frequently put to me.

North Norfolk News: North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker says apprenticeship schemes could be rolled out to ease labour shortages.North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker says apprenticeship schemes could be rolled out to ease labour shortages. (Image: Archant)

Yet the demand is there. With an ageing population and my dream of a significant expansion of Cromer Hospital, it’s plain that we need more medical professionals, to meet our future needs.

I believe in the young people that live here. They have the talent, we just need to give them the opportunities and equip them to realise it.

But this isn’t about my constituency, it is a national issue. Indeed, its one that needs to be placed championed by the future leader of the Conservative party, too.

North Norfolk News: An apprentice at work in a commercial kitchen.An apprentice at work in a commercial kitchen. (Image: Archant)

That new leader has some big questions to address, to this end… how do we fill these roles with new practitioners? How do we give local people the opportunity? How do we reallocate the skills of those all-too-often drawn to metropolitan areas, like London?

There are a number of remedies being pursued by this government, as ushered-in by the white paper, as well as that written to outline the levelling-up plan. However, there’s one concept I think it worth honing-in on: Apprenticeships.

I think it absolutely right that this government is working to promote apprenticeships to meet fill the labour shortages existent within many local economies.

However, I think that we can be going further. Two years ago, I called on the government to expand its apprenticeship offering, given the health and geographically-related, structural issues, brought about the pandemic.

Having emerged from the worst of the crisis, this call remains as relevant as ever.

Indeed, to this end, I’ve been working with stakeholders to bring at least 100 more apprentices to the area as soon as possible, challenging local businesses – alongside the Department for Work and Pensions – to make this a reality.

I think it important that we set these sorts of targets, to show that they can, in fact, be met and to outline that the immediate proliferation of apprenticeships in North Norfolk, is a viable ambition.

I want to see more of this joined-up, central-local governmental working, as we bring about new opportunities for the next generation.

Similarly, we need to be seeing universities, cooperating with local businesses, and the government, to ensure that we make a concept I believe well-worth pursuing, more widely embedded in our educational system – degree apprenticeships; the melding of both the traditional three-year, post-18, higher-ed, degree programme, and that of the current-form apprenticeship.

Real world, on-the-job training combined with a first-class academic and technical education. We all know this to be an educational model needing to be realised and I’m committed to ensuring that it happens.

Many of the issues that I have described are caused by supply-side blockages.

Firstly, students being put-off from going to university to pursue lengthy four, five, even seven year courses, before fully qualifying (for law, it’s currently four, dentistry, five, and medicine, seven) – often those from less socially advantaged backgrounds.

Academically qualified grads not wanting to settle in areas that aren’t cities. That all creating a perpetual cycle whereby local firms and practices lack the business confidence to take on and train-up those in the earlier stages of their respective careers.

Currently, you can pursue degree apprenticeships in: aerospace engineering; architecture; nursing; social work; civil engineering. Why not dentistry?

Why not the law? Medicine? Whilst these courses, naturally, have on-the-job components to them, they typically come in the later years and are not paid. This to me, seems as though we are missing something.

Degree apprenticeships means that students spend far more of their time working, from the off and can last between three and six years. This means that we can alleviate the skills shortage, right now, getting the earlier cohorts of 18-19 years olds into offices, surgeries, hospitals, now, when it’s most needed.

Excitingly for those attending (and for those who care about our local economies), degree apprenticeships are fully paid for, with the government truly bringing employers into the higher-ed fold.

As mentioned, this will help young people that have never had the chance to go to university, do so, bringing many of those local to my patch – with roots there – into these roles, helping them to set-up a life there, given that they will be earning from the age of 18.

This all sounds great. But what’s next? How do we make all this a reality?

Well, firstly, funding needs to be had to ensure that these programmes are made available across England’s universities – especially that serving Norfolk – the University of East Anglia (UEA). We have very recently seen £8 million afforded to degree apprenticeships’ expansion, but, for us to accelerate this, more is needed.

There are now over 39,000 degree apprentices in England, but we can augment this number. We also need to be bringing a greater number of employers into this system, to make the programmes all the more attractive for young people and career-changers, whilst, finally, dovetailing further education (FE) apprenticeships – like those I’ve been calling on the DWP to provide – with those accessible at the higher (HE) level.

If you undertake an FE apprenticeship, you should be able to pursue an HE degree apprenticeship, in a related field.

Apprenticeships of all kinds provide a great opportunity for us to sort-out the in-need-of-reform university system, close the structurally-caused gaps we all know to exist within a number of the country’s local economic ecosystems, and help the afflicted Covid generation actualise their potential. I want to see us doubling-down on our commitment to them, as soon as possible.