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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 08 March 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, International Women’s Day 2022, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Motion without Notice, Decision Time, Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2022


Contents


Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2022

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-03226, in the name of Pam Gosal, on Scottish apprenticeship week 2022. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I would be grateful if members who want to participate in the debate could press their request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges Scottish Apprenticeship Week, which runs from 7 to 11 March 2022; recognises what it sees as the potential of apprenticeships to transform the career prospects of people of all ages across Scotland; notes with concern the belief that apprenticeships are sometimes seen as a lesser career path when compared to university; considers that, as Scotland recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, apprenticeships will be essential in addressing new gaps in the labour market; expresses openness to new ways of apprenticeships being used to address employer-led demand to aid the economic recovery, and notes the calls for an increased awareness of apprenticeship offerings across Scotland.

16:57  

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead my very first members’ business debate. I welcome colleagues from across the chamber to speak on my motion, which acknowledges Scottish apprenticeship week 2022.

As the Scottish Conservatives’ shadow spokesman for further education and training, I am pleased to be able to mark apprenticeship week for the first time since I was elected. This year’s theme is “apprenticeships work”, and I therefore dedicate my speech to the ability of apprenticeships to transform career prospects, address gaps in the labour market and advance our economy.

I offer thanks to the Apprenticeships.scot team, Skills Development Scotland and the Construction Industry Training Board not only for providing me with helpful briefings ahead of the debate, but for their hard work all year round to facilitate links between learners and employers. I also commend every employer that has taken a chance on keen learners and considers apprenticeships to be a worthwhile investment.

As we know, apprenticeships are work-based learning opportunities or jobs with industry-recognised qualifications. More than 12,000 employers support Scottish apprenticeships, and it is estimated that there are currently around 43,000 apprentices across Scotland. Right now, in 2022, a dramatic skills shift is taking place as a result of factors such as Covid-19 and the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—declarations. The long-lasting changes in the jobs market that Covid-19 has created mean that skills shortages are becoming increasingly common. Around two thirds of Scottish companies are struggling to find employees who possess the required skills, and a further 74 per cent anticipate the need to upskill their staff.

The journey to net zero will require nothing short of a green skills revolution. Projects such as the mass retrofitting of Scotland’s households will require skill sets that are, as things stand, few and far between. That is exactly the type of dilemma that apprenticeships can address, and for that reason, they will play a fundamental role in our economic recovery.

Many businesses are unexpectedly experiencing increased demand, but they do not have the capacity to expand their operations. Although many school leavers are currently going into higher education, that should not be to the detriment of other learning pathways. It is therefore essential for us all, across the chamber, to stress the importance of apprenticeships and the opportunities that they afford learners.

University is not for everyone, and it is important to diversify the skills with which we equip workers. If everybody had the same set of skills, there would be a lack of diversity in thought, innovation and creation.

Does Pam Gosal agree that an apprenticeship is not second best to a university place?

Absolutely—an apprenticeship should never be second best. It should be there as a choice for every learner.

During my teenage years, my father took me under his wing and showed me the ropes of his business. Today, we may call that process an apprenticeship, but the truth is that the practice has been around for many years. It was not until my father sadly passed away that I decided that I had to step up and take over the business, and provide for my family. Despite leaving school with no qualifications or experience, I found that what I had learned from my father was invaluable. I later decided to return to formal education as a mature student, which I did alongside my work. As a result of my non-traditional route into education, I am a huge advocate for gaining on-the-job experience, which apprenticeships provide.

However, we still need to do more to ensure that everybody is afforded the same access to apprenticeships. Employers such as Glenmorangie, which my colleague Sue Webber visited yesterday, say that they are still struggling to attract female apprentices into what are perceived as male-dominated industries. I heard that concern myself when I visited the New College Lanarkshire campus at Kirkintilloch. Employers also warn that apprenticeships are easier to access in some local authority areas than in others, and that more needs to be done to address that postcode lottery.

Just this morning, at the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, I raised the importance of ensuring that apprenticeships are accessible to all groups, including disabled people. When my colleague Alexander Stewart met apprentices in Alloa yesterday, he learned that there needs to be better engagement with third sector organisations in order to maximise apprenticeship opportunities in those settings. However, we would also like to listen to apprentices themselves. That includes apprentices such as Kieran, whom I met in Dumbarton yesterday. In his apprenticeship with Dingbro, Kieran is learning skills that will set him up for his whole career. However, he feels that, for some young people, current apprenticeship pay is not enough to incentivise them to follow that career path.

It is clear that apprenticeships work for apprentices, employers, the local economy and the wider community. For that reason, I conclude with three things that we can all do to help apprenticeships to fulfil their potential role. First, we can engage with individuals, businesses, educators and apprenticeship providers to better align skills provision with demand and future trends. Secondly, as members across the chamber visit apprentices and employers to mark Scottish apprenticeship week, it is important that we ask what more we can do to improve access to that career pathway. Thirdly, we can encourage young people to properly consider every career pathway that is open to them. No single pathway is right for everyone, and we should encourage people to take a truly open-minded approach to the issue.

17:05  

I congratulate Pam Gosal on securing this debate during Scottish apprenticeship week, and I thank her for sharing her experiences with us.

Scotland has 43,000 apprentices, who are acquiring first-hand industry experience that is suitable for responding to the nation’s ever-changing employment skills needs. Those opportunities play an essential role in the nation’s economic renewal as we recover from the pandemic.

Mr Gibson, could you adjust your microphone? Thank you.

Apologies, Presiding Officer.

Work-based learning systems help to address skills shortages and boost productivity. With more than 12,000 employers offering apprenticeships, the opportunity to learn on the job significantly reduces youth unemployment, with 92 per cent of modern apprentices staying in work after they have qualified.

Despite the reduction in uptake due to the pandemic, from 2020 to 2022, 447 young people started a modern apprenticeship in North Ayrshire, which highlights the success of the programme and the motivation of young people to gain employment, boost their skill set and confidence and start a career.

The young persons guarantee has created 18,000 opportunities for young people, including modern apprenticeships. It has also tackled inequalities and removed barriers that prevent young people from entering employment. Apprenticeships can help to drive equity of opportunity, and they give employers the tools and support to be inclusive in recruitment.

Skills Development Scotland strives to ensure fair workplaces and equal opportunities for Scotland’s young workforce. Employers that recruit apprentices are encouraged to diversify their workforce, as unconscious bias can sometimes be present when selecting candidates. It is vital to ensure that all frameworks, particularly for apprenticeships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—reduce gender bias in order to encourage all young people into the industry that suits them best.

Young disabled people can now receive the highest level of funding for their chosen modern apprenticeship, with that scheme having supported more than 5,000 disabled people as they enter employment.

I thank Mr Gibson for his excellent speech. Does he agree that Scotland’s college sector has a huge part to play in the evolution of modern apprenticeships? Does he also agree that the current set of cuts that that sector is facing as a result of this year’s Scottish Government budget will hardly benefit the apprenticeship programme across Scotland?

I can give you the time back, Mr Gibson.

Colleges have a vital part to play; I do not recognise the cuts agenda that the member mentions. He should perhaps look at the difference between college funding north and south of the border. That might open his eyes somewhat.

Scotland’s unique apprenticeship programmes allow employers more flexibility to ensure that apprentices benefit their business while offering continuous assessment to ensure that apprentices achieve their goals, technical qualifications and core skills. In comparison, English apprentices are tied to approved programmes and must complete end-point assessment, including in core functional English and maths, meaning that many young people cannot access the benefits of those programmes. The continuing increase in apprentice numbers ensures a bright future for both the economy and the apprentices themselves as they learn valuable interindustry skills.

Yesterday, as part of Scottish apprenticeship week, I was pleased to visit DSM Nutritional Products in my constituency and meet six of their 36 apprentices—Jamie, Karla, Liam, Logan, Murron and Timo—to discuss their career pathways so far and their future ambitions. The company plans to employ 119 apprentices by 2024. A number of them will work on DSM’s world-beating methane-reducing feed additive for cattle, Bovaer, which shows the exciting opportunities that young people are offered.

In her motion, Pam Gosal

“notes with concern the belief that apprenticeships are sometimes seen as a lesser career path when compared to university”.

She reflected that in her speech and was right to do so. Several young people I met were surprised to discover, through the work of Skills Development Scotland and their personal experience, that they can be just as successful by completing an apprenticeship as they would have been by going to university. They all said that that was not what their teachers told them when they were at school, where it was made clear that anything less than university would be second best. The positive attitude of the apprentices highlighted how important it is for Skills Development Scotland to engage directly with schools, parents and young people to change that misguided perception. More employers should also be encouraged to adopt work-based learning and ensure that young people know that university is not the only pathway after leaving school.

I am delighted that DSM has been nominated in the large employer of the year category at tomorrow’s Scottish apprenticeship awards for its commitment to increase apprentice opportunities and provide exciting, secure and enduring careers for our young people. I thank all the employers in Cunninghame North and across Scotland that hire apprentices, and I look forward to the numbers growing even further as Scotland recovers from the pandemic.

17:10  

I am pleased to speak in the debate to acknowledge Scottish apprenticeship week 2022, and I thank my colleague Pam Gosal for bringing it to the chamber.

It is always a pleasure to mark the success of an initiative that simply was not around during my school days. Admittedly, that was more than a few years ago, but, at that time—and, in fact, not so long ago—if somebody did not shine academically, the teacher was likely to tell them that they would not amount to anything and could forget about a career. I ask members to imagine the damage that that did to the many young people who were consigned to the scrap heap at such an early age. I am thankful that those days are over and that the Scottish apprenticeship scheme plays a vital role in supporting youngsters, employers and the economy.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting an amazing early years facility, the Lullaby Lane nursery in Bearsden in my constituency, to present a certificate to Chloe Winning, who recently completed her apprenticeship Scottish vocational qualification in social services for children and young people. Chloe joined Lullaby Lane Nurseries straight from school and has thrived in the vocational learning environment. It was clear that she loves every minute of her job.

Lullaby Lane Nurseries, which also has a facility in Milngavie, uses an exceptional business model that I would love to see replicated throughout Scotland. Director Pauline Scott, who is also the co-owner and director of Tigers (STA) Ltd and might be known to some members, and nursery manager Donna Adams offer a bright, airy and very much home-from-home, attachment-based nursery. Outdoor, play-based learning can account for up to 80 per cent of time spent at the nursery and, needless to say, the children love getting muddy.

During the early stages of the pandemic, the nursery was open to provide care for the children of essential workers, then to help to provide stability and interaction for all children at the earliest possibility. It is a living wage employer and there are currently 16 modern apprentices with the company, who are training on various frameworks, but mainly social services for children and young people. A previous modern apprentice of the year winner comes from the Bearsden site, and Lullaby Lane is nominated this year in the small and medium-sized enterprise employer of the year category at the Scottish apprenticeship awards. Two other employees are previous winners of apprentice of the year, so the company is definitely doing something right.

Pauline Scott told me of the energy and fresh ideas that young people bring to the richness of the nursery experience. The benefits are so much more than a taster of a potential career in childcare—much of the hands-on coaching and reflection can be applied to different career aspirations, such as in law or accountancy, with transferable skills such as understanding brain development, psychology, family dynamics, empathy and problem solving.

Kirkintilloch high school works in partnership with Tigers to place senior school pupils in foundation apprenticeships, which offer a blended learning approach for senior-phase pupils alongside the traditional high school qualifications. Many young people do not learn by listening—they need hands-on, practical experience, which is why apprenticeships are important. We now know that there are different ways of learning and of upskilling young people, who go on to have fulfilling jobs and happy lives. Pauline Scott puts it very well when she says:

“First you start with gaining trust, building a relationship with the young person, then comes the training and education.”

It really is not rocket science. It is common-sense psychology and is about mutual respect between a young person and their mentor or trainer.

I welcome all the commitment that employers give to Scottish apprenticeship week. In particular, I congratulate all the young people who have committed to the scheme and wish them all well in their future careers.

17:14  

I congratulate Pam Gosal on leading an effective and efficient first members’ business debate with an excellent speech. It is a great pleasure to follow Rona Mackay, who talked about the role of modern apprenticeships for our young people working in nursery and childcare services.

Scottish apprenticeship week shines a light on the vital role that apprenticeships play in supporting people, employers and the economy. Scottish apprenticeships provide the chance for businesses to adapt, sustain and strengthen their business, and for young and not-so-young people to acquire skills and experience to underpin the future for themselves and their families.

Will Mr Whitfield take the opportunity to join me in congratulating young apprentices across East Lothian and the south of Scotland on their commitment and dedication? I am thinking in particular of two inspirational young apprentices, Lewis Murphy and Hayley Goldthorpe, whom I met yesterday and who are apprentices with Openreach, helping families in those areas to connect to full-fibre broadband.

I am more than happy to extend my congratulations not only to those two apprentices—who, I hope, will have great future careers—but to all apprentices across East Lothian and the south of Scotland.

Apprentices do so much. Although they might frustrate some people by turning up ever so slightly late at the beginning of their apprenticeships and occasionally forgetting their safety boots and even their hard hats, by the end, they are no longer apprentices but skilled operatives who understand what work is, what they need to do to satisfy their employer and how to show them what they can do. Apprenticeships ensure that our whole society moves forward in a much more safe and productive way.

We have three types of apprenticeships: foundation, modern and graduate. It is important to have different types of apprenticeships, and we are further developing the apprenticeship model. As Pam Gosal said, that is much needed, given that many companies do not have apprenticeship pathways for work that is coming down the line. An example is Forestry and Land Scotland. There might be pathways in the forest itself, but apprenticeship pathways fall apart when it comes to timber production and how timber will be used in future.

Like many members, I, too, want to speak about my visit to see an apprentice. I had the great pleasure of visiting McMillan (Coppersmiths and Fabricators) Ltd in Prestonpans in East Lothian. The great advantage was that I did not need to take my car—I could stroll there from my house. I stepped into a huge warehouse that many people have walked past, wondering what goes on in there.

When I went inside the building, I was delighted to see the treasure of all treasures: whisky stills. The company makes whisky and spirit stills that are used around Scotland, the United Kingdom and the world. One can see copper being hammered from a flat plate into a beautiful spherical shape, and stainless steel and copper, and brass and copper, being welded together.

For the uninitiated, those metals melt at different temperatures, and the staff at McMillan were aware of the mess that an ignorant MSP could make with a welding torch. That led them to give me not a welding torch but a hammer. I sincerely apologise to the apprentice whose efforts to make a beautiful swan’s head for his still—it was almost six weeks of work—I ruined as I whacked at it. I felt as I did when I was a teacher, only the other way round, when he looked at me, gently shook his head, turned and said to his boss, “He could make it better, but it might take some time.”

I would like to praise Euan, the apprentice. He guided me around the factory and provided calm explanations to my very silly questions. When he told me that he was a cell manager, I said, “Ooh—a cell manager. What does a cell manager do?” He looked at me with sympathy and said, “I take care of 12 people.” He is a man—not a boy—who is getting towards the end of his apprenticeship and who looks after the health and safety of other apprentices and workers. He knows the skills that are needed—skills that are hundreds of years old. He works in a company that is proud to display its founder’s apprenticeship papers from all those years ago.

To all those apprentices, I say thank you. I thank them for the magic that they showed me, and I thank them for the magic that I felt when they explained to me that school is not everything—I know that—and that education is not just about going to university. For apprentices, it can be about having the privilege of sitting with a craftsman and moving from being someone who knows nothing to becoming, at the end of the journey, a craftsman themselves.

This is apprenticeship week. I thank all apprentices and their employers. Through apprenticeships and apprentices learning skills, there is a better future for Scotland. I saw that better future yesterday.

Thank you, Mr Whitfield, for that timely reminder that not everyone is geared up to make a success of an apprenticeship.

17:19  

I thank Pam Gosal for lodging the motion and join members in celebrating Scottish apprenticeship week.

Presiding Officer, after what you and Martin Whitfield said, I am now incredibly nervous about the visit to a factory that I will make on Friday—I will not touch anything; I will just stand back and watch.

Apprenticeships are an integral part of our strategy to train a new workforce and build paths to stable, long-term careers. They provide essential skills and valuable training. Between April and December last year, 419 modern apprentices were in training in East Lothian, 66 per cent of whom were aged between 16 and 24.

Modern apprenticeships play a key role in the positive destination rate for school leavers, which is 96 per cent in my constituency.

Does the member share my regret that the decommissioning of Torness power station and the closure of the nuclear industry in Scotland will mean, in effect, that East Lothian has five fewer apprenticeships through the EDF apprenticeship scheme, through which people went on to highly skilled and well-paid jobs in the nuclear energy sector?

We discussed Torness in a debate a few weeks ago. The member knows that I have spoken to the station manager, who is confident that, as was the case with apprentices at Hunterston, every person who is currently in an apprenticeship will be moved on in EDF.

But not necessarily in Scotland.

There are around 43,000 apprenticeships in Scotland.

A key point about apprenticeships is that they aid companies, increasing productivity by 83 per cent and improving staff morale by 79 per cent and staff retention by 72 per cent. Research has showed that the most common reasons why employers support apprenticeships are that they provide young people with opportunities, train workers in core skills and provide industry experience.

The employers website www.apprenticeships.Scot, which provides free advertisements for apprenticeships, is well used, with 800,000 visits a year and as many as 700 live apprenticeship vacancies every month.

Last week, the First Minister talked about the crucial role of apprenticeships in addressing the skills gap in the national health service. Through a new £3.5 million Scottish Government recruitment programme, 150 apprentice pharmacy technicians will be recruited and trained in Scotland.

In East Lothian, we face labour and skills shortages in sectors such as renewables, food and drink and agriculture. Currently, most apprenticeships in my constituency are in social services and construction.

Apprenticeships are key to addressing labour and skills shortages. Moreover, our economic recovery from the pandemic relies on such opportunities. As our recovery progresses, we must go further to encourage businesses to take advantage of the opportunities that apprenticeships provide.

Businesses are doing that well at the moment. This week, I will visit Had Fab, an engineering company in my constituency that has great knowledge and experience of the apprenticeship scheme. Had Fab is presented with great opportunities to work in the renewables sector in the months ahead. As I think that I said in the debate on Torness last week, on 18 March I will meet many operators in the renewables sector in East Lothian. There are many apprenticeship opportunities in that regard.

Through the young persons guarantee and the apprenticeship employer grant scheme, the Government is ensuring that it takes a wraparound approach. From speaking to careers advisers in my constituency, I know that free bus travel for under-22s has the potential to increase young people’s access to apprenticeships and will increase employment opportunities for that age group, especially in rural areas.

The change to the approach to modern apprenticeships with the introduction of a rural supplement for providers, in recognition of the costs of rural delivery, shows that the Government has taken a truly nationwide approach. NFU Scotland is working on a skills strategy paper that will consider issues to do with agriculture and forestry, which are key sectors in rural communities. In East Lothian, there are serious labour shortages in those sectors, due to Brexit.

In that regard, we should look at modular approaches that offer opportunities to work with local colleges as part of an extensive suite of opportunities for school leavers and others.

I celebrate all the apprentices in East Lothian and beyond. I encourage school leavers to consider a local apprenticeship and ask businesses to review their apprenticeship offerings and consider whether there is scope to offer more apprenticeships, which are a valuable opportunity that should not be passed by.

17:24  

Today is a good reminder of the positive role that is played by members’ business debates in the chamber, which suffered during the pandemic when the business of the Parliament was severely disrupted. Over the years, I have lodged a number of motions for debate on apprenticeship week, so it is great to see my colleague Pam Gosal take up the mantle—I thank her for doing so. Apprenticeship week has always been a great opportunity to show what apprenticeships achieve and to highlight the key role that they play not only in skills-based learning but in our economy.

The modern apprenticeship era took hold in the United Kingdom in 1994, taking an ancient concept and renewing it to adapt to the conditions of our time. In that form, apprenticeships will soon celebrate their 30th birthday. That is not only a milestone but an opportunity to look at decades of progress on an issue that has always enjoyed wide support in the Parliament.

However, like much of what we find ourselves discussing these days, apprenticeships have taken a hit from Covid-19. After years of slow but steady growth, the number of modern apprenticeship starts has taken a nosedive over the pandemic. That is not a positive place to find ourselves in, but it is sadly reflective of the impact that the situation has had on education and opportunity in Scotland.

I am the mother of a fourth-year apprentice joiner who, at the height of the pandemic, with countless apprentices throughout the country, was working in a front-line service, turning around void properties and enabling people to move on from homelessness and into a property. Will Jamie Halcro Johnston celebrate those apprentices, who responded in such a fantastic way on the front line?

I absolutely will. There has been a huge amount of pressure on some apprenticeships, but many apprentices have taken the opportunity to stand up and play a vital role. I thank all of them, across Scotland, for the role that they have played. Elena Whitham makes a really good point.

Recovery must be the priority. It can be fast or slow, depending on how much resource the Scottish Government is prepared to commit. I hope that the minister will be able to go into some detail on that point. We do not want to find ourselves in years to come looking back wistfully at 2019 as some sort of better time for Scottish apprenticeships. I have said before that many businesses have found themselves in a more precarious position than they were in pre-2020. If we are to ensure a large and diverse group of apprenticeship providers, we must ensure that business is supported and that confidence can return.

Although we often think of the foundation and graduate apprenticeships as two new strands, both are now settled into the landscape.

Foundation apprenticeships are a particular area of interest. They give young people a great opportunity to experience the practical approach that apprenticeships can provide. Unsurprisingly, they, too, have been disrupted over the past two years, as sizeable numbers of participants have been unable to complete their courses. I welcome the fact that some reassurance has been given to that cohort that their work will be recognised through letters of recognition.

It is commendable that all 32 local authorities are now involved in foundation apprenticeship delivery, but the most recent figures published by the Scottish Government show that 10 per cent of state secondary schools are still not engaged with the scheme. That falls short of where we should be.

Growth has also sometimes seemed unbalanced. The two social services frameworks have expanded at pace, but there is an enormous gender divide. On the other side of the coin, many traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based frameworks remain enormously male dominated, with around nine in 10 participants being male.

Choice also remains an issue. As with subject choice in schools, we should ensure not only that foundation apprenticeships are widely available but that the breadth of learning is reflected across Scotland.

Another element that I will consider is rurality. For the Highlands and Islands in particular, there must be an increasing focus on skilling and reskilling in our rural economy. Although there have been positive steps in recognising rural-based apprenticeships, demographic changes mean that those efforts must be upscaled considerably. Conditions have changed, but the problem was not unforeseen. For decades, rural businesses and trades have struggled to attract new entrants, and Government support has too often been piecemeal and pushed problems further down the line. If we want to mend some of the regional inequalities in Scotland and in our economy, apprenticeships in rural sectors are a vital tool for achieving that.

I am pleased, once again, to be able to mark apprenticeship week and recognise the great work of apprentices, who have often had to achieve in incredibly challenging circumstances. There is a road ahead to ensure that apprenticeships and the opportunity that they provide are available and accessible to all. Let us hope that 2022 brings some necessary change.

17:29  

One of the facets of members’ business debates is the opportunity that they provide for all of us to indulge in a little parochialism. That is far from a criticism, not least because I will focus my contribution on the Angus South constituency that I represent.

Specifically, and not for the first time, I will note the work of an organisation that, over the almost 11 years that I have served in the Scottish Parliament, I have highlighted by speaking in the chamber and by hosting visits to it by ministers such as Jamie Hepburn and by our former Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick.

I am, of course, speaking about Angus Training Group, which has been located in Arbroath for the past 56 years, during which time it has produced in excess of 2,000 engineering apprentices for a range of north-east firms. This non-profit-making organisation is supported by its member companies and Skills Development Scotland, and its role in the delivery of modern apprenticeships has been a constant during my tenure as the local MSP.

ATG has faced challenges, but it has shown itself to be nothing if not resilient and capable of adapting to the evolving nature of a changing world. Indeed, currently, the organisation is engaged in a refresh of its offering in a number of areas, including robotics and automation. As I said, it has faced challenges, especially following the oil price slump of a few years ago and from the pandemic.

The Catherine Street centre, which the group operates from, is capable of hosting 75 apprentices but, on the back of the slump, it was training just 12 new starts. By 2017-18, that number had bounced back a little to 23 and, in the following two years, numbers had climbed back into the mid-30s. However, the pandemic came and an anticipated intake of 50-plus translated into just 12 modern apprentices.

Despite the difficult times, ATG secured a contract for 30 pathway apprentices and built back from there. Indeed, feedback for employers suggests that the upcoming intake could rise to 40 to 45 MAs.

Will the member take an intervention?

I wondered which half of the Statler and Waldorf double act would get to their feet; I give way to Mr Waldorf.

I am not sure whether that is a compliment; I am trying to work out which one was which in “The Muppet Show”, but I cannot remember.

I welcome Graeme Dey’s speech. Does he agree that every penny of the apprenticeship levy that is raised in Scotland should be spent on apprenticeships?

It is regrettable that Mr Kerr regularly spends his time in members’ business debates simply sniping at the Government. I invite him to fashion a speech, as many of his colleagues have done, and make a more positive contribution to these occasions. After all, the speeches are only four minutes long.

ATG is very proactive in seeking out the modern apprentices of tomorrow. Over the course of the past fortnight, its instructors have visited Carnoustie high school, Forfar academy, Morgan academy and, just today, Montrose academy, in order to entice local youngsters into an engineering career through the modern apprenticeship route.

I hope that that offers positive evidence that the raising of awareness of apprenticeship opportunities, which the motion calls for, is already taking place in the engineering space, at least in Angus.

However, ATG has continued to struggle in one area, which is the recruitment of young women engineering MAs. Today, on international women’s day, we need to reflect on that issue.

In the light of international women’s day today, does the member believe that the Scottish Government needs to do more to promote more females into male-dominated roles?

There is no doubt that the Scottish Government has a part to play in that, but I contend—and I think that Pam Gosal would agree—that it is a wider issue. It is about the education system and society. The fashioning of gender stereotypes—“That is not a job for girls”—is a big problem in our society, and we need to start tackling that collectively.

I have chatted to some of the young women who have taken up the opportunity but, over the past decade, I can think of only one occasion on which more than two female apprentices have been part of any one intake. A small cohort from Aberdeen found its way to Arbroath via a programme that actively encouraged female entry into engineering—I think that it was run through the college in Aberdeen. However, in the main, the female apprentices I have met had identified engineering as a career path purely through family links.

That should give us all food for thought. The engineering workforce of the future must be better gender balanced and, clearly, a great deal more work needs to be done to make that happen. When the minister is summing up, I would be keen to hear from him what renewed attempts are being made to address that long-standing issue, but I reiterate that it is a societal issue; it is not about the minister or the Government.

I do not want to wind up on a negative note, because there is an overwhelming amount to celebrate about the modern apprenticeship programme. Angus Training Group might be a flag bearer in my neck of the woods, but it is not alone in modern apprenticeship delivery. I am pleased to see the numbers in Angus beginning to rise again and get back to pre-pandemic levels.

I thank Pam Gosal for lodging the motion and allowing us to showcase the positive benefits of the modern apprenticeship programme Scotland-wide and in Angus South.

I gently discourage members from calling other members names, although I appreciate that what was said was not the most barbed of comments. I am sure that I do not need to give that warning to Stephanie Callaghan, who will be the last speaker in the open debate.

17:35  

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will take care not to do that.

I, too, congratulate Pam Gosal on bringing her first members’ business debate to the chamber.

Apprenticeship week provides a chance to celebrate Scotland’s apprentices and the businesses that support and nurture them. As we have heard, the theme of this year’s celebration is “apprenticeships work”. In my speech, I will focus, as many others have done, on demonstrating, not through a statistical lens but through personal stories and insights, why apprenticeships work.

It seems that our MSPs were out in force yesterday, and I was no different. My visit was to Saltire Facilities Management in my constituency. Saltire is Lanarkshire’s success story, providing boilers, renewable heating and electrical services to the community. Throughout Saltire’s history, providing apprenticeships to local people has been at the heart of its workforce strategy.

What better way to get informed on why the apprenticeships work than talking to the apprentices themselves. Yesterday, I met Connor, Euan, Jonathan and Liam—four young tradesmen who were full of enthusiasm—and talked to them about their experiences and the fact that they chose to follow the apprenticeship route from school. Their stories are the best marketing tool for apprenticeships, and their insights provide the best signposts in relation to where we—as a society, as policy makers and as educators—must do better.

Those four articulate and intelligent young men all made personal choices to become apprentices. They knew that they wanted to go down that path, and they are proud of their decisions. They see the path that they are following as equally valid and reputable as that followed by those who enter university, and they were all supported by their families, as Stephen—I cannot remember his surname for a second—Kerr mentioned. However, they were in the significant minority among their peers at school, with most of their friends choosing university over apprenticeships. Indeed, I got the impression that their friends never truly contemplated an apprenticeship. It is clear from the anecdotes that were provided yesterday that too many families and schools still view apprenticeships as a less valuable, less marketable and less successful choice.

The young men I met yesterday love their jobs. They enjoy the mix of work and learning, the human and technical contact, the remuneration and having their weekends free to socialise with their friends. They also love the security that comes with an almost guaranteed job at the conclusion of their apprenticeship.

However, none of the young men felt particularly supported or encouraged by their schools to follow the apprenticeship path. The minister could perhaps pick up on that in his closing speech. They were all clear that schools need to become far more informed about foundation and modern apprenticeships. They suggested that schools offer students class time during which what different apprenticeships offer could be set out, and that employers and schools need to work more closely together to promote apprenticeship opportunities in the community.

Apprenticeships work because apprentices earn while they learn. They work because the opportunities directly relate to where the economy needs the skills. Apprenticeships work not only on an economic level but on social and community levels. The Saltire trade apprentices I met were caring, compassionate and confident. They enter between six and eight houses a day and engage with and talk to people they have never met before, who are often socially isolated. The young men really value those conversations and interactions. Apprenticeships create good citizens. We should never underestimate their benefit to our local communities.

As we emerge from the pandemic and work towards net zero, we must urgently adapt the skill requirements for our future workforce. Labour shortages in key industries, which have been exacerbated by Brexit, mean that policy makers and educators need to fully harness the power that apprenticeships can provide. Apprenticeships are fundamental in ensuring that Scotland has the necessary skills for our rapidly changing employment landscape, and in ensuring that we create the fairer, greener economy that Scotland seeks.

The Scottish Government has demonstrated its commitment to increasing the number of apprenticeships in Scotland. It is now incumbent on all of us as a society to ensure that they are encouraged and respected. Whether it is in relation to housing, healthcare or hospitality, we must cherish, celebrate and promote the crucial part that apprenticeships will play in Scotland’s economic future. Apprenticeships do indeed work.

Thank you, Ms Callaghan. I am sure that it will not be long until you come to know and love Mr Kerr and his interventions.

I call the minister to respond to the debate.

17:40  

Presiding Officer, I think that we can lay the blame for Ms Callaghan misremembering firmly and squarely at Mr Dey’s door, given that he misnamed Mr Kerr. I can remember Mr Kerr’s name. I think that the problems were probably caused by the name Stephen Waldorf.

I join others in thanking Pam Gosal for bringing her motion on Scottish apprenticeship week to the Parliament for debate. I had not realised that this is her first members’ business debate. It is a very good choice. As Jamie Halcro Johnston mentioned, he used to bring the issue for debate each year. It is right that we have a debate every year to mark Scottish apprenticeship week. One of the great joys that I have in the activity that I undertake in my ministerial role and have undertaken in previous ministerial roles relates to the ability to meet apprentices who are engaged in work-based learning. I have seen that it is a life-changing opportunity for them. It is right that we recognise that by having this debate. I thank other members for their various contributions.

I join Pam Gosal in commending Skills Development Scotland and the other partners that she mentioned on the significant amount of work that they do to support the range of activity that takes place during apprenticeship week. Not least of that is the work to support members with the various visits that have been undertaken or will be undertaken during the week. I thank members for the visits that they have undertaken—even Martin Whitfield, despite the chaos that he seemed to unleash with his visit. I commend engaging in such a visit to every single member, because it is only through the process of engaging with apprentices and their employers that we can really understand and see at first hand the difference that an apprenticeship makes to both.

Will the minister take an intervention?

I will certainly give way to Mr Kerr, whose name I can remember.

I thank the minister for remembering my name. I also pay tribute to his commitment to modern apprenticeships across Scotland. The first time that I ever met the minister was at Forth Valley College.

That brings me on to the evidence that has been presented to the Education, Children and Young People Committee—there are at least two and a half other members of the committee present at the moment—that suggests that Colleges Scotland is deeply concerned about the level of cuts that colleges will suffer as a result of this year’s budget allocation. Will the minister comment on those concerns, which are well founded and are not based on rumour or political point scoring? Colleges are deeply concerned about that and the impact that it will have on apprenticeships across Scotland.

I can give you the time back for that intervention, minister.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I will first make the incidental point that the vast majority of apprenticeships are funded through Skills Development Scotland, rather than through the budget line that is allocated for colleges, which relates to their core activity. There is a little in that line for apprenticeships and, in the main, the apprenticeship funding is through a different budget line. That is just for clarity and information for members.

On Mr Kerr’s point about college budgets, we have here the convener of the Finance and Public Administration Committee, and I am sure that he and other members of that committee have heard directly from the Scottish Fiscal Commission and so would be able to testify to the fact that the Scottish Government this year is facing a 5.2 per cent cut in real terms to its overall budget. That means that we have £3.7 billion less to expend this year than we had last year. That is the challenge that we face.

Against that backdrop, however, I am absolutely committed to working with Colleges Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council to make sure that we, collectively, respond to the economic and societal imperatives that we have through colleges engaging with local communities and economies, and with employers and citizens, to ensure that they are responsive as they continue to do the great work that they always undertake.

On international women’s day, would it not be right to agree to try to narrow the gap between male and female apprentices, which is currently a 60:40 split, and aim for a 50:50 split?

It absolutely would be. I was going to pick up on that later. We have a challenge in that regard, as Graeme Dey rightly pointed out. As Mr Whitfield and others will recognise, we are dealing with deeply ingrained societal attitudes that have been inbuilt over generations. It is not easy to undo those, but we must set ourselves that task and must respond to it.

Through our developing the young workforce activity, we are seeking to challenge gender perceptions about what occupations different genders do. We are waiting to see what recommendations the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board’s gender commission makes. Through the gender pay gap action plan that I was responsible for developing in my previous ministerial role, we will take a range of action to overcome some of the barriers that exist in that regard.

I underline the fact that Scottish apprenticeship week is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the achievements of apprentices and the system that we have. As has been pointed out, the challenges that we face in relation to gender participation are significant. We also face challenges around parity of esteem. I am committed to responding to those challenges. As Pam Gosal, Stephanie Callaghan, Kenny Gibson and others have said, there is a misperception that, somehow, an apprenticeship is not of as high a standard as some other forms of post-school qualification. We need to tackle that misperception head on because, fundamentally, that is not the case.

Will the minister take an intervention?

I will give way in a moment. I want to make a point that picks up on Graeme Dey’s point. I know that there is more to life than what a person might earn at the end of their qualification, but it is a factor for some folk. When I visited Angus Training Group with Mr Dey, I was told that the young engineers it was training will earn significantly—to save their blushes, I will not mention the precise figure—in excess of median earnings by the age of 21. That is one measurement that shows the benefit of undertaking an apprenticeship.

I mentioned in my speech that the issue of accessibility of apprenticeships for disabled people has been highlighted to the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee. I believe that apprenticeships are there for everybody. We have talked about gender, but how can we help more people with disabilities to access apprenticeships? That issue has been brought up by disability support groups today.

We have had a concerted focus on that through Skills Development Scotland’s equality action plan. I do not have the precise figures from previous years before me, but the latest figures that are available for the most recent full year show that around 12.8 per cent of modern apprenticeship starts self-identified with an impairment, health condition or learning difficulty. That represents a significant increase on where we were before. Therefore, we have made improvements in that regard, but there is much more to be done, as I said in responding to Mr Whitfield. Ms Gosal can rest assured that we are committed to that end.

Presiding Officer, I have probably extended your patience enough, but I will quickly conclude by responding to Mr Halcro Johnston, who was concerned that we might look back at 2019 as the hallowed land. He was right to recognise—some of his party colleagues have not always done so—that it was inevitable that Covid-19 would have an impact on apprenticeship starts. Covid has had such an impact—we saw that with a significant fall in the most recent full year. Before Covid hit, we were on track to meet our 30,000 target, so it has had an impact. However, if we look at the latest figures, we see that, by the end of quarter 3 this year, there were nearly twice as many apprenticeship starts as there were last year. Therefore, we are on the road to recovery, although there is more to be done. I assure Mr Halcro Johnston that we will not look back at the pre-2020 period as the hallowed land.

I still have great ambitions for apprenticeships. We will work back towards the 30,000 target. That is a salient reminder of the value of apprenticeships year round, not just in this Scottish apprenticeship week.

To the roll call of young apprentices that we have heard this evening, I add the name of Ryan, a young apprentice electrician at RS Merriman whom I met yesterday while he was working at Highland Park.

Meeting closed at 17:50.