MATTHEW HANCOCK: Lessons learned here, applied nationally

Column by Matthew Hancock MP
Column by Matthew Hancock MP
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This spring, with flowers blossoming and the weather starting to warm, I’m reminded of what a privilege it is to represent the view of people in West Suffolk in Parliament.

One of the best things about being the local MP here is that I get to find out extraordinary things about our part of the world, and about some of the accomplishments of people locally.

Did you know that in Newmarket, a small factory makes parts for some of the fastest jets in the world? Or that Claydon Drills in Wickhambrook has developed a new seed drill that is revolutionising agriculture by planting seeds without the need for ploughing?

And one of the good things about the British political system is that I can take what I see and hear in West Suffolk as the local MP and apply it to what we need to do nationally as the Minister responsible for Skills and Enterprise in Westminster.

Two weeks ago I held a Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair in Newmarket. It was brilliant to see local sixth formers and school leavers just as excited at the chance to start an apprenticeship as they were about applying to university. I hear the same thing when I visit Suffolk schools and when I have visited West Suffolk College.

Local employers tell me how important it is for young people to have the skills they need to get a good job and realise their aspirations. One way to do that is by raising the status and boosting the number of people in apprenticeships. Ultimately, I want it to become the norm that if you don’t go to university you go down the apprentice route instead.

The good news is that we’re headed in the right direction. We have created 1.5 million new apprenticeships since 2010. In West Suffolk alone we’ve seen 2,860 people start an apprenticeship since the election. Research shows each apprentice boosted the bottom lines of their employer by an average of £2,000

We’ve come a long way. When I was growing up, in the 1980s and 1990s apprenticeships had dropped to a record low. By the 2000s it was widely assumed that university was the only route into a good job.

Now those low numbers are history, and the attitude is being turned on its head. Through an apprenticeship, you can now become an engineer, a lawyer, an accountant, or work in IT, nuclear power, the media, marketing or publishing. And better skills mean better pay: a high quality apprenticeship can lead to higher lifetime earnings on average than a degree.

But we can, and will, do more. This month we celebrated Apprenticeship Week 2014. It was a huge success and more than 20,000 new apprenticeships were created. In West Suffolk I met many young people with inspiring stories.

I was especially impressed at seeing children at the All Saints’ Primary School in Newmarket learning to code a simple computer game. They were having so much fun that they might not have realised they were learning an incredibly valuable skill, but by the time they grow up and start thinking about a career, maybe in technology, I want them to have the chance to get to the very top.

The one thing that motivates me more than any other is giving young people the education and skills system they deserve. That means breaking open routes to the top and ensuring vocational routes into work are on a par with academic ones.

Someone leaving school should be able to look at their future safe in the knowledge that whether they start an apprenticeship or go to university, either option will give them a fantastic start to their career. That’s my plan for skills and I’m determined to see it through, by taking what I learn here in West Suffolk and applying the lessons not just here, but across the country.