Apprenticeships: how to reverse the decline in starts

Despite incentives for employers to hire apprentices, many are reluctant, writes Louise Ward as she sets out a more strategic approach

Louise Ward

Apprenticeships: how to reverse the decline in starts

Apprenticeships have undoubtedly been impacted by Covid-19, with a Sutton Trust report stating that 36 per cent of apprentices were furloughed over the course of the year, 8 per cent were made redundant and 17 per cent had their off-the-job learning suspended.

In addition to this, the total number of apprenticeships nationally has lessened by approximately 18 per cent, with some regions experiencing an even larger percentage drop where there is a higher density of roles within the sectors that have been hardest hit, including manufacturing, engineering, retail and hospitality.

For the West Midlands specifically, the latest available apprenticeship data provides insight into the impact of Covid-19 on the 2019-20 academic year, with more than a 20 per cent drop in apprenticeship starts compared with the 2018-19 year, and a 17.1 per cent decrease in apprenticeship vacancies compared to November 2019.


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Apprenticeships form an essential part of the UK’s skilled workforce. Yet, there still appears to be a reduced appetite for recruiting apprentices, despite the Rishi Sunak’s efforts in rolling out a large-scale programme of financial incentives to encourage businesses to take on more apprentices as part of the post-pandemic road to recovery.

More needs to be done to ensure that young people continue to have access to skills training and development opportunities, and employers – particularly SMEs – have the necessary support and requirements in place to aid our future workforce.

According to the Sutton Trust, firms worried about their ability to survive the crisis were more likely to say their apprentices were unlikely to resume, and to cut future apprenticeship recruitment. Half of such businesses reported they would be recruiting fewer apprentices, or none at all.

Apprenticeship starts: a more strategic approach

To reverse the decline, a more strategic approach is needed: one that aligns with the demands of each region to enable a more effective route forward in providing valuable experience and opportunities in the workplace, while also contributing to a national economic recovery.

Back in 2017, the government introduced the apprenticeship levy to increase both the quality and number of apprenticeships. This was with a view to support those requiring training or upskilling, as well as providing employers with appropriately skilled staff. As of 2018-19, we had seen a rise in apprenticeships by 4.7 per cent nationally but in the West Midlands, we had surpassed the national average with 8.7 per cent. That was, of course, until we were hit with the pandemic, which caused a steep decline.

Despite the challenges we still face, there remains a responsibility to support our communities and the businesses – particularly those SMEs – who would otherwise struggle to operate and recruit. Apprenticeships are essential in enhancing employability, but also helping businesses to grow and sustain their workforce. Employers can identify the skills they need – for both the short term and longer term – and thus offer programmes which build the right expertise in the areas most beneficial to them. Part of this process lies in understanding the needs and growth sectors within the region – for example green manufacturing and digital technologies.

The need for this support forms part of the government’s thinking behind its Kickstart Scheme which was introduced in September 2020 and designed to provide funding to create new job placements for young people at risk of long-term unemployment, and while we recognise that the scheme has been slow to get up and running, the approach is welcomed by WMCA. We share a commitment to using all resources available to benefit the community and have been working closely working with DWP and other key partners such as Local Authorities, Chambers of Commerce, colleges and training providers to make sure that we have a comprehensive offer in place for employers and great training opportunities for young people.

However, we would like to go further – which is why we are encouraging the government to consider the potential for "Kickstart converters" – where we can encourage employers to take on Kickstart "graduates" and move them on to employment or apprenticeship opportunities.

The West Midlands Combined Authority has also been able to use its apprenticeship levy transfer fund to ensure we can help more SMEs access support for apprenticeship training. We do this by identifying large businesses to partner with and which can donate unspent levy to SMEs through the apprenticeship levy transfer fund, set up by the WMCA, which covers 100 per cent of apprenticeship training and assessment costs.

Since the launch of the scheme, we have partnered with more than 40 levy-paying employers to redirect £14 million of funds and have helped over 1,800 apprentices and 613 SMEs within the region.

There are many benefits to apprenticeships, and we must do everything we can to support individuals, employers and training providers in reversing this decline. We cannot afford to stall young people’s talent any longer, and to really make a difference we need to take action in understanding and responding to regional needs and using funding in a strategic way to build a skilled workforce that will be able to evolve and adapt in a continually changing landscape. Only then will we be able to safeguard our future workforce and contribute to sustainable long-term growth and recovery.

Louise Ward is the apprenticeship manager at the West Midlands Combined Authority 

Tes Apprenticeships

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