It’s been a challenging year for the reputation of apprenticeships.
Over the past few months, we’ve seen a deluge of media reports highlighting the year-on-year drop in new apprenticeship starts. Alongside this, there have been reports of widespread confusion from employers about the new system and repeated assertions that the new levy, which came into force in April 2017, is simply a tax by another name.
With so much negative discussion, questions have understandably been raised about the future of apprenticeships in the UK. The good news is that despite what the headlines say it seems like good progress has been made in the first year.
Despite some continuing reservations about the new way of funding apprenticeships, it’s clear that employers are beginning to understand the powerful role apprenticeships can play in meeting the needs of their businesses.
We recently partnered with accounting firm Grant Thornton on new research that interviewed 1,000 employers and 1,000 young people. The research found that attitudes towards apprenticeship programmes are more positive than some might think.
According to the Generation Apprentice report, young people, parents and – crucially – employers all recognise that apprenticeships are a valuable route into a job and onto the next job.
Contrary to recent reports, our research found that 79 per cent of employers stated that the levy has encouraged them to recruit more than they would have otherwise. Furthermore, half (50 per cent) stated that they intend to recruit more apprentices in the next five years than they do now.
These findings represent encouraging shoots of new growth that should be nurtured. The impact of Brexit on the available pool of talent in the UK looms on the horizon and it is essential we use every tool we can to future-proof our workforce, to ensure it is sufficiently equipped with the skilled individuals we need.
In order for the levy to fulfill its potential, it’s essential that employers are informed about the wide range of jobs at all levels that apprenticeships are able to fill. They must be given a greater degree of flexibility about how it can be used to better suit their needs. The levy can play a crucial role in closing the skills gaps we face across a wide range of industries in the UK – particularly at a time when future access to talent from overseas is in question.
The cost of getting apprenticeships wrong wouldn’t just be felt through our economy, but in the fabric of our society too. Generation Apprentice found that 86 per cent of employers felt that apprenticeships helped to increase social mobility within their business.
It’s no surprise that employers need more time to get to grips with to the new system. Any significant change demands time to bed-in. Just months before the introduction of the levy, City & Guilds carried out a piece of research that found a fifth of employers who would be paying the levy did not realise that this was the case. Many others expressed confusion about how their levy investment could be used. It has been encouraging, then, to see just one year later that so many employers have already begun to use the levy.
That’s not to say that misconceptions don’t still exist. Not enough small employers, for example, who may not be required to pay into the levy directly, understand that they can still benefit from it – although, unlike before, they now need to make a small contribution of 10 per cent.
Not just for young people
Equally, there is a lingering sense that apprentices are just for young people working in industries such as construction. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The levy is meant to be used by employers to upskill and reskill talent across the workforce as they see fit – whether that’s a new entrant or an established employee in a leadership role.
There is also more to be done to overcome the impression that work-based learning is somehow less valuable than academic routes. This assertion is both unhelpful and untrue. If the stigma of the word "apprentice" is challenged, apprenticeships can be used as a valuable way to fund training at every level of the business, from entry level through to senior management.
If we want the new system to live up to its possibilities, it’s critical that government and the skills education ecosystem work alongside employers to tackle any remaining confusion – and that employers’ needs are really listened to. We must strive to ensure we fully understand what employers want from apprenticeships and help them achieve their goals.
The potential of apprenticeships to provide the UK with the skilled workforce it needs is incredibly exciting – and it is immensely reassuring to see employers positively engaging with this critical part of our education and training system.
What we need now is stability, to give the system adequate time to bed in and allow employers the breathing space to get up to speed with the huge changes that have been put in place.
If this is allowed to happen, I genuinely believe that the new apprenticeship system could be one of the most successful changes to professional and technical education we have seen for decades.
Kirstie Donnelly is managing director of City & Guilds Group