Apprenticeship speech delivered by Prime Minister David Cameron in Milton Keynes

"There’s no better way to back people’s aspirations than to invest in apprenticeships, to invest in the skills that can make a difference to your careers."

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Cameron


So good early afternoon everybody. Welcome to Mercedes Benz here in Milton Keynes. Most of you here are members and participants of our Apprentice Academy. It’s the kick-off of Apprenticeship Week here in the UK. We are very proud to have a very special guest today: the Prime Minister of the UK. Give our Prime Minister a hand, please.

Just before I hand over to David Cameron, a few words to tell you about how happy we are to see this happening today. We have spent some millions of investment into this academy. We have been doing it now for 18 years. We have more than 1,200 successful graduates here. We have more than 300 people doing it over a three-year course, and we have a 98% completion rate, which is fantastic.

We are very proud to see this career path growing. And we are looking forward to make it an even more integral part of our career channels.

So here in this room there are some people sitting who will work one day, certainly in management positions too. And some of you have made it up to the worldwide world of management in this company. Our founder in fact, Gottlieb Daimler, in 1861-63 was working in Britain, the model land of industrialisation and of mechanical engineering, to learn his skills in locomotive engineering here. And then he went back and founded the company, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Thank you.

Prime Minister

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much for that, and actually, your last point is a great place to start, which is, having an apprenticeship isn’t just about getting great skills and great training; it can be the stepping stone to a fantastic career and to running some of the best businesses in the country. That’s what has happened in Mercedes. That’s also what’s happened in Rolls Royce; half of the board of Rolls Royce, one of Britain’s finest engineering companies, did apprenticeships, and I think it’s a really important point to start National Apprenticeship Week with.

And I’m delighted to be here at Mercedes. I can’t think of anywhere better to be at the start of National Apprenticeship Week, because it’s absolutely vital for the future of our country that we invest in apprenticeships and we make a real success of all the schemes that we have in place.

And I just want to say a few words about that before then trying to answer any questions that you’ve got about anything you want to ask. I think point number one is that Britain is in a global race. We are in a global race of competition, with some of these fast-rising economies like India and China and Indonesia and Malaysia, and if we want to succeed in this global race, we’ve got to invest in our number-one resource, which is our people. And that means making sure that there is great skills, training, great apprenticeships, making the most of people’s talent. And that, to me, is what apprenticeships are all about.

So number one is, if we want to succeed in this race, yes, we’ve got to make more things, we’ve got to sell more things, we’ve got to export more across the world, but we won’t do that unless we really put our money and our backing into growing apprenticeships.

Second point is that if you want to win in a global race, the best thing you can do as a country is actually to allow your people to rise up and achieve all of their aspirations, whether that is their first job, their first home, the first business they set up, the first move they make in their career; that is what aspiration is about. And there’s no better way to back people’s aspirations than to invest in apprenticeships, to invest in the skills that can make a difference to your careers.

And that leads me to the third thing I want to say before taking your questions, which is, to me, apprenticeships and investing in apprenticeships is actually a win-win situation. It’s good for you because you get the chance to acquire skills that will mean you can have a really worthwhile career. There’s some research evidence out recently that shows that if you do a higher-level apprenticeship, it raises the earning potential in your life by £150,000. So it’s a win for the people that undertake the apprenticeships. It’s a win for the companies, because the government is putting money into apprenticeships; we’re allowing companies to access great training and skills which will be good for those companies.

But also, it’s a win for the country. It’s been proven that every pound the government puts into apprenticeships pays off 20 times over. So it would be mad not to invest heavily in this area, and we are. Since this government came to office two and a half years ago, a million people have started apprenticeship training. We’re starting half a million people each year, and we want to see those numbers grow. We want to see apprentices expand even further.

And that leads me to the last thing I want to say before answering your questions, which is this. I want us to raise our ambitions as a country when it comes to this area. I want us to have as a new norm the idea that in school, everybody, everyone who can, either takes that path on to university, or takes that path on to an apprenticeship. You should be doing one or the other. We shouldn’t be saying that it’s okay for people somehow to leave school at 16 without seeing a really clear path, either an apprenticeship to get you those great skills, that great training, that can then lead on to a degree as well, or to stay on at school and to consider a university degree. That should be the new norm in our country. That is what we should raise our sights to, raise our goal for in Britain today.

So that’s what I wanted to say by word of introduction, but now it’s time for any questions about anything you like, and I will try to give you an answer. Who wants to go first?


As you said, with the support that the government’s now giving to encourage us growing our own apprentices in our businesses, have you given any thought to broadening that support between the businesses and other governing bodies like VOSA or the FTA? Because our apprentices get fantastic training from the manufacturer about the product, but there’s other areas of their training and skill sets that they also need broadened, that could come from people like the FTA and VOSA, to help improve roadworthiness further than we do now.

Prime Minister

Well we’re completely open to suggestions. What we’ve tried to do is open up apprenticeships and say to great companies like Mercedes and others, ‘Look, if you want to become the training academy, you don’t have to send people off to college. You can do it yourself. We’ll give you the money; you design the apprenticeship scheme. And if you want to include work by others or information by others, then that should be allowed.

Our watchwords here should be responsibility: we want to give you, the businesses, the responsibility to carry out more of these apprenticeships. But we do need to bear in mind the other ‘r’ alongside responsibility, and that is rigour. We need to make sure that our apprenticeships are seen by the young people, by schools, by society, as rigorous, as really good training standards. But we should be open to ideas and suggestions for how to improve them, and we should be flexible; not every apprenticeship has to be exactly the same. What matters is the overall quality that you’re getting.

So who’s going to win Formula One this year? Is it going to be Lewis Hamilton? What do we think? Any early money going on there?

What about any questions you’ve got about anything you want to tell me about the nature of this apprenticeship, anything you think is particularly good about it, or anything you think particularly you’d like to change? The balance between classwork and work on the vehicles, the time you spend here, the time you spend at your businesses; how do you feel about that?

Another question I really want to hear people’s views on is how much information you got at school. Do you feel that when you were at school, you were given a really good explanation of the choices? Or did you have to kind of find it for yourself? A number of you were saying to me earlier you’d done quite - you know, a lot of you had found information about this scheme on the internet rather than something you were pointed to at school. Anyone want to chip in on any of those?


When I was school, you didn’t really hear about apprenticeships; it was more to do with going to sixth form, going to college, and it was - it wasn’t until my second year in college before I found out about apprenticeships and what they can do for you and where they can get you in life. What is actually being done to make that more - well, schools more aware of the - well, the availabilities of apprenticeships?

Prime Minister

Things like this week actually, National Apprenticeship Week, makes I think a big difference. And I think - and we’ve put a duty on schools that they do have a responsibility to help people in terms of careers advice. And we need that to be properly looked at to make sure they’re doing it.

But I suspect it’s something more than passing a law or making a regulation. I think it’s a big cultural change, that we need businesses to recognise they’ve got to get into our schools and talk to young people about what is available. We need teachers to think about, ‘Right, well what are the options for young people?’ And not simply think about the well-trod path of A-levels and then universities.

So I think it’s a cultural change, and it’s a cultural change that at its heart has got to have this idea that it isn’t somehow better to take one path or the other path. Both can be a brilliant way of pursuing your career. And it’s about what works for you.

I’ve found in conversations I’ve had, going around the country, you sometimes meet people who’ve been through university and then are doing an apprenticeship, and they say, ‘Well, I rather wish I’d known about the apprenticeship in the first place, because of course, I could have been learning and earning at the same time rather than the path I took.’

So more information, a culture change in our schools, but a clear responsibility on schools that they’ve got to make sure this information is available. And they should work with business to do that.

But then there’s a message to business, which is, I need your help. I need you to go into, for instance, here in Milton Keynes, go into the secondary schools, explain what a brilliant course this is. And then also explain some of the things you need to do in order to access it. Because the figure I’ve been given this morning, which is really quite worrying, is that, you know, thousands and thousands of people applied for the places that you filled, the 180 that are available each year, but far too many of those thousands weren’t able to access the places because they haven’t got maths and English at GCSE. And so we really need to crack that. The idea that there are jobs out there that don’t involve English and maths is a complete myth. They are, if you like, the two key vocational skills that you need before you can acquire the other ones. And we need that message to get out and about to schools, to young people, to teachers and to everybody else.

Who’s next? Sir.


You say that Mercedes gets the funding for learning down here, is there an age limit on that? Like, if someone’s over the age of 18 or something, do they not get funded or is that…?

Prime Minister

No, there’s no age limit. I mean, we’ve - of the half million apprentice starts that we have, a large number are young people like yourselves, but there also is a lot of businesses that are using apprenticeships to upskill, to increase the skills of their workforce. And I think that’s - that’s good.

I think what we’ve got to do with this whole agenda is make sure that we focus particularly on young people. Because obviously that’s the future. We have a massive problem of youth unemployment, and we have to crack that problem of youth unemployment by making sure we’re giving young people a good start. When you’re going out there, competing for a job, if you’re competing with people who’ve been in other work, who’ve got all those other skills, as a young person you’re a bit disadvantaged. So I think we really do need to focus on the apprenticeships for young people in particular.


Liam Fox has delivered a message this morning which will resonate in parts of the Conservative Party and parts of your core vote, which is that you should cut - freeze public spending for five years and use the revenues not only to cut the deficit, but also to cut taxes to stimulate growth. Is he right?

Prime Minister

All I’d say is look, there are many good suggestions coming from many quarters. And as Prime Minister, I’m never short of advice. Plenty of people giving me advice. And - but there is one piece of advice I won’t take, and that is the piece of advice that says you ought to cut the National Health Service budget.

You know, we made a very clear promise before the last election that yes, we were going to have to take difficult decisions, yes we were going to have to make some very difficult and painful cuts, but we wouldn’t cut the NHS budget. I think this is really important for people to know that; it’s really important for people to know how much I care about it. The NHS was there for me and my family; I want it to be there for other people’s families, too. And as we go through what is a difficult period - I don’t deny that for one moment, we’ve had to take difficult decisions, we’re in a tough economic environment. I want people to know that as we go through that tough economic environment, the NHS is going to be - is going to be there for them, and the NHS is not going to be cut by this government.


What about other departments, though? Schools?

Prime Minister

Well, we’ve taken some very difficult decisions on other departments. We have managed to make a reduction, for instance, in police spending. But at the same time, we’ve cut crime. We’ve asked local government to take difficult spending decisions, and they’ve done that.

But I think when you look particularly at the NHS, you know that we’ve got an ageing population. You know, there’s massive pressures on the NHS; more expensive treatments and drugs coming through. And I just don’t think it is practical or right to cut the NHS, and that is why we are investing in our NHS.

And I would say that we are getting results for that investment. Waiting times are down since the election. Waiting lists and the number of people waiting for long periods of time have come down since the election. There is now a 97% reduction in mixed-sex wards. We’re seeing the rates of infection in our hospitals come down.

So we’ve got a good National Health Service. Yes, there are parts of it that clearly need improvement, as the Mid Staffs showed, but we’re seeing a good performance from large parts of our NHS, and a government that believes in it and a Prime Minister who will always back it.


How helpful is it in the run-up to the Budget to have your Cabinet colleagues questioning economic policy? And just to go back to something that Vince Cable said this morning, could you take advantage of low interest rates to borrow, to fund capital investment?

Prime Minister

Well first of all, it is absolutely right that we have a plan to get on top of our deficit, to deal with our problems. We’ve taken difficult decisions. The whole government supports that.

One of the benefits of that policy is that we have low interest rates. And if we didn’t have a proper and tough approach on the deficit, we wouldn’t have those low interest rates.

Now obviously, low interest rates and the strength of the balance sheet of our country gives us the ability to make sure that we can have additional capital investment. Now, we’ve done that in lots of ways. We’ve offered Treasury guarantees to big infrastructure schemes. No government’s been able to do that before, but we are doing it. We’ve been able to back additional investment in housing by guaranteeing parts of people’s mortgages and by having our first-buy scheme. Again, that’s not something that has been properly done before.

So we have the benefits of low interest rates, but we won’t continue with the benefits of low interest rates unless we continually demonstrate how we’re going to get on top of Britain’s deficit and how we’re going to stick to the plans that we’ve set out.


You talk about the apprenticeship obviously helping us get jobs in the future and obviously earning money now. My cousin actually is on a four-year course on Police Studies, and he’s actually finding it hard to get an actual police job now. And he was saying to me a couple of months ago, he says, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if the police actually had an apprentice scheme to go from,’ as I was doing on for Mercedes Benz. And how would you help that to get from there into an apprenticeship into the police?

Prime Minister

Well it’s a very interesting - it’s a very interesting idea. I mean, the police have had a different way of doing things, which is, they’ve had – you’re a probationer for a period while you do your training. One of the things that has actually been recommended by the Police Negotiating Board and the work that they’ve done with the government is actually giving police forces the opportunity to vary the starting salary for a police officer, and saying, you know, it has always been a relatively high starting salary, perhaps it would make sense to have a bit more flexibility so you can take people on and train them, starting at a slightly lower salary. So that’s something we’re taking forward.

But it’s up to all organisations to look at whether they want to have apprenticeship schemes. The government is also - you know, we have - we take on apprentices in some government departments. And the public sector needs to look at how it uses apprenticeships. This is - the whole point of National Apprenticeship Week is to say to businesses large and small, to public-sector organisations, ‘Have you thought about this properly?’

I think the area of growth we most want to see is the small firms. I think there was an assumption, particularly a few years ago, that it was just too complicated; there was too much bureaucracy for small firms to take on apprentices. And so a big firm like Mercedes, you’ve got - you know, you always had the people to do the paperwork and sort out the scheme and set up this fantastic academy here, and congratulations for that. Small firms just found it too hard. And we’ve simplified it; we actually now pay a special bounty to small firms if they take on their first apprentice, having not done so before. So I think that’s the biggest area for expansion.


Thank you. What advice can you give to young people that are just leaving school? What’s the best route for them to do to get into a career?

Prime Minister

I think the best advice is to look at all the options and think very carefully earlier on, before you start making your choices. I think, you know, we’ve - I’ve been chatting to a number of people here this morning. Some said they got good advice at school. Others said, actually, they were lucky; they just found information on a website.

I think the most important thing is to look at - look at your options. Look at what is available. Understand the different paths. I think in too many schools the academic path is absolutely known. You do your GCSEs, you do your A-levels, you fill in the UCAS, you go to university. That pathway has been laid out very clearly for people. The apprenticeship path hasn’t been laid out clearly enough, and that’s what this week is all about. That’s what needs to happen in schools.

But I would reiterate this one point, that whatever career you’re thinking of, whatever your future choices, you’ve got to think about those core skills like English and maths that are part of your future, whether you’re going to do an academic pathway or a vocational pathway. They are absolutely core skills. And we let people down, we let young people down, if we somehow say, ‘These things don’t matter.’ They really do, and the government is giving them a proper emphasis.

Obviously the - we need to do more to help young people get jobs. We still have a big unemployment problem in this country. But the good news is that we’ve got a million new private sector jobs over the last two and a half years. Youth unemployment has been coming down. So while the economy has been struggling to recover, we have actually been expanding the number of people employed, the number of jobs.

Now we need to do more of that, and particularly, we need to help young people. Because as I’ve said, I think they can be disadvantaged as they come into the job market, and the apprenticeship schemes can help young people, because they clearly give you the skills and the training, and they make it very worthwhile for companies to take you on.


For young people, actually having and running a car is getting very, very expensive. And I just wondered, is there anything that’s actually going to be doing to help us with that, or something?

Prime Minister

Well I’m - although I’m the First Lord of the Treasury, and the Chancellor is the Second Lord of the Treasury, I have to let him give that Budget. So I can’t give anything away. But I totally understand the fact that for people running a car - and many people have to run a car. It’s not a choice. For many people, if you - you know, particularly if you live in rural areas, you have to have a car in order to deal with work and life and everything else.

We inherited a situation where there were all these increases in fuel tax baked into the Budgets every single year. And we’ve been defusing and postponing and abolishing these increases, and we have even cut fuel duty on occasion, so that it is ten pence per litre cheaper than it would have been if we’d stuck to my predecessor’s plans.

But I understand that people still look at the price of petrol and diesel, they look at the cost of running even a pretty - you know, inexpensive family car, and it’s still a very big amount out of their pay. And so we’ve got to do everything we can to help people to get on and help people get work, to help people live their lives, and I recognise the cost of fuel is a major, major issue for people.


Like you said, there’s a lot of people losing out on apprenticeships. A few of my friends have missed out. Is there any plans to give them a trial week or whatever, to know what they’re doing.

Prime Minister

Yes. Very good question. There are two things we want to do here. One is, there are those people who would really benefit from an apprenticeship but they haven’t quite got the work aptitudes, to put it politely, in place. And they need a bit of help with that. And that’s where these new traineeships are coming in, and Matt Hancock, the Skills Minister, is here. He is pioneering this idea that we should have a new fund and a new way of paying training organisations to help people acquire some of those basic work skills that are vital before you even get the apprenticeship. I think that will help; there’ll be lots of people who will benefit from those.

The other thing is saying that even if - and the government’s made this decision, we’ve now got to make sure it happens in practice – even as you leave school and go into an apprenticeship, you’ve got to keep up the work on English and maths even if you don’t have those qualifications.

So I think those two things will – will help a great deal. But in the end, there’s no substitute for going right back to where it all starts, you know, in primary school, and making sure that more people are leaving primary school, going on to secondary school, with the – you know, the - with a level of key-level qualifications in terms of English and maths. Because that’s where it’s been going wrong in the past, people not getting that at primary, going into secondary school, getting switched off the curriculum because they’re not able to read and write properly, and then it’s - for too many people, it’s been downhill from then on.

So there’s some remedial things you can do, like these traineeships; but you’ve got to get it right in primary school as well.


Prime Minister, Nick Clegg said yesterday that the Conservative Party was veering to the right like a broken shopping trolley. I just wondered what your response was to his comments.

Prime Minister

Well, Nick Clegg and I do many things together, but supermarket shopping is not one of them, I’m happy to -I’m happy to report. I find with my own shopping trolley once I’ve put my daughter in there, it steers a pretty straight path, and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing as Prime Minister and leader of this coalition government.

Can I thank you all very much indeed. Can I thank Mercedes for hosting us, and can I congratulate you on the amazing quality of this Apprentice Academy. I think it’s a great example of what businesses can do to help us with this skills agenda. It’s good for you, it’s good for the country, and it’s very good for these young people who’ve beat all the competition to take the places here and to make sure that they have great skills for the future. So thank you very much indeed. Thank you.

Published 12 March 2013