Why apprenticeships are no longer the poor relation

October 3, 2018

The region’s business community is recognising the value of apprenticeships, according to Ivan Jepson, director of business development at Gateshead College

Long-held perceptions of apprenticeships are changing. Nowadays, businesses of all sizes are seeing the value of this form of training, which can help firms become much more productive, competitive and fit for a successful future.

In the 1980s, when I was growing up in Liverpool, employers generally had a less positive opinion of apprenticeships. Back then, they were seen as a poor alternative to the academic route, an option for people who hadn’t made it to university. They were also deemed as a low-skilled, low-paid job that involved a lot of heavy-duty manual work. Fortunately, however, over time these opinions have changed. Employers are realising that apprenticeships come in all shapes and sizes and can give them direct access to the skills they need. At Gateshead College, I manage a team of talented colleagues who deliver apprenticeship training with more than 400 companies around the region, including large multi-nationals and SMEs.

Many of these firms have championed the benefits of this form of training, which can upskill employees, make them more efficient and plug skills gaps within the workforce.

We’re helping Greggs, the iconic Newcastle-headquartered food-to-go retailer, to roll out a national apprenticeship programme to fast-track ambitious expansion plans.

Currently, 120 apprentices in eight locations across the country are involved in the initiative and are gaining vital skills in key areas such as retail service and retail management.

Brewin Dolphin, a well-known national wealth management specialist with a century of heritage on Tyneside, is also reaping the benefits of investing in apprenticeships.

Together, we’ve created a training programme that’s supporting the company’s ongoing expansion in the region. Business administration apprentices have undertaken on-the-job training within various departments of Brewin Dolphin’s Newcastle-based business support function, where they’re gaining an overall understanding of the business and developing key skills.

We’re also delivering a national apprenticeship scheme with one of the region’s largest firms, Virgin Money, which is helping staff across the country develop valuable leadership and management skills. The initiative is part of a wider drive by Virgin to upskill its 3000-strong workforce and plot a career path for staff who want to progress to a management role. The key to successful apprenticeship delivery is to ensure that the training is tailored specifically to the current and future needs of the business.

Off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all programmes won’t work; companies will only gain value from the training if it’s bespoke and supports the future aims of their business.

Some of the region’s most high-profile business leaders – including Mike Matthews, managing director of car parts maker Nifco UK and Robin Mackie, chairman of Gateshead College – have built successful careers on the back of apprenticeships. If this approach has worked for them, it can work for others.

The Apprenticeship Levy was introduced last year as an incentive for more businesses to invest in this form of training. Employers that have a payroll of more than £3 million are charged 0.5 per cent of payroll costs towards training apprentices.

Since the levy came into force, while it has not been without its challenges, it has benefited dozens of companies in the North East and beyond. It’s part of a wider Government reform of technical education, which will see the introduction of T-levels (or tech levels) in 15 key areas including digital, construction and social care. These radical changes represent a great opportunity for businesses to develop their skills base so that they can drive the growth of key industries and oil the wheels of the economy. That’s the message I give to employers as part of my day job, which essentially involves working with businesses to identify their skills needs, helping them understand the complexities of funding, frameworks and standards, and creating a bespoke training programme to suit.

Educating people – business leaders, teachers, students and their parents – on the vast range of career options is also crucial. Far too many young people have been advised to go down the traditional academic route when this path is clearly unsuitable for them.

What I’ve learned in my career is that it’s essential that every young person has access to good quality careers advice so they can make informed choices. If this happens, companies will have a much better chance of recruiting people with the skills that can make a positive difference to their business.

By promoting apprenticeships and acknowledging the great things they’re enabling businesses and individuals to achieve, we can break down the misconceptions that do still exist. In other European countries, such as Germany, vocational education is valued just as much as traditional academic qualifications. Hopefully, more people in the UK can adopt this mentality and continue to bang the drum for apprenticeships, which are a great way of supporting business growth and preparing young people for the world of work.

Gateshead College  

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