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Ideas & Observations

The Big Question: January ’24

National Apprenticeship Week returns in February, shining a spotlight on vocational learning and its impact on company workforces and marketplace success. However, despite a push for greater work-based training, many commentators believe a disconnect still exists between industry needs and educational provision. How do you view the present system? Is it functioning sufficiently, or are there areas you would mark for improvement?

MARTIN HASWELL
Learning and development HR business partner
TMD Friction

Like any national programme, the UK’s apprenticeship system has its supporters and critics.

Paying into the Apprenticeship Levy encourages employers to invest in their workforce, particularly organisations where budgets are reduced following rounds of belt- tightening.

The growth of new providers and the broadening of apprenticeship standards available has enabled employers to create opportunities in professions which previously weren’t possible.

This has given them more room for manoeuvre, particularly regarding succession planning and workforce futureproofing.

Convincing employers the Apprenticeship Levy isn’t just another tax, or can be treated as ‘monopoly money’, though, can be a struggle.

Employers who appreciate the benefits of investing in their workforce and developing people really see the benefits.

One area where managers feel the pain is the need to commit 20 per cent of job hours for apprentices each week.

The most successful get on board and really commit, as they see the long-term benefits, while some begrudge the lost time in the immediate term.

Here is where learning and development teams really need to ensure managers are committed to their succession plans and apprentices.

There is also a need to focus on quality when it comes to partnering with an apprenticeship provider; there needs to be trust and confidence between employer and provider, and a focus on the quality of the learning being delivered.

BRENDA MCLEISH
(pictured, above)
Chief executive
Learning Curve Group

It’s difficult to get through a single conversation about apprenticeships at the moment without talking about the effectiveness of the system.

Of course, as a training provider, we’re well acquainted with the endless benefits apprenticeships bring to employers and individuals.

However, there’s a persistent issue that lies in the inflexibility of the levy system, which prevents businesses using their contributions effectively.

A significant portion of levy funds remain unspent, returned to the Treasury, with no clear sight on where it’s invested next.

When this happens, businesses can’t grasp the opportunities the initiative was designed for, turning it into ‘just another tax’ on their organisation.

Now, I’m not naïve to the realities of these situations – there are some organisations who choose to write it off as just another tax willingly, and even some who didn’t realise they were paying it in the first place.

The reality is, the current system is difficult to navigate and doesn’t allow for the flex needed to suit the intricacies of each organisation.

If the levy were to evolve to accommodate skills and apprenticeships, perhaps with shorter, more specific courses to support problem areas or skills shortages, we could see the diverse needs of businesses across the UK being met.

This would bridge the disconnect that we currently face, ensuring effective use of funding and the sustained success of apprenticeship programmes.

RACHEL ANDERSON
Assistant director of policy
North East Chamber of Commerce

The Chamber has just completed two Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), one in the Tees Valley and one for the North of Tyne, and we asked 3500 employers this very question.

Employers were generally supportive of the technical and vocational education provided.

In subject areas, such as construction, engineering, hospitality and health and social care, there is a feeling the base level of skills provided are the right ones and done to a high standard.

But we are not so good at then developing those skills and encouraging individuals to build on that base.

So many roles now require specialisms and more advanced skills, which move as technology develops.

We need shorter, more focused courses where individuals can develop a suite of specialist advanced skills and fit learning around a job.

There is one other really significant thing I would change.

Almost every single employer we spoke to said the first thing on their list would be communication skills.

Over the last few years, we have really lost something; it’s intangible, but employers cited not looking people in the eye, being unwilling to have a telephone conversation and not being able to talk to clients.

I would add modules on these to every course, not just the customer-facing vocations.

Communication is so important, and we have to nurture it – particularly since COVID-19.

DAVID ARMSTRONG
Managing director
Access Training

The system is under quite a lot of strain at the moment, in various ways.

One of the biggest issues is how difficult it is to recruit good staff into trainer roles.

This has always been an issue but with a lack of increases in funding for apprenticeships, there’s no way training providers can compete with industry salaries, without compromising quality.

Despite the massive cost increases, in many cases we haven’t been able to raise our prices since the introduction of apprenticeship standards in 2017, and it’s just no longer sustainable.

In the majority of sectors, individuals can earn far more in industry than they can in education, and this is causing a sizeable barrier to growth.

Due to the recruitment challenges across the economy, the appetite from employers to invest in the skills of new and existing employees has grown, but without the necessary funding investments in the apprenticeship system, this is going to continue to stutter and stall.

The other major concern is the administration time that is being burdened on employers – which they don’t have time for.

Hopefully, the introduction of the Expert Training Provider scheme, of which we are delighted to be a part, is a step in the right direction to moving away from such arduous levels of employer administration.