'We need a new social partnership to ensure apprenticeships for all'
David Hughes, chief executive of Niace, writes:
We need a new social partnership to ensure that the apprenticeships programme can operate to the benefit of people of all ages and for employers of all types and sizes.
Reading through the nominations for the Apprentice of the Year category for this year’s Adult Learners’ Week was a truly heartening experience.
The enthusiasm, talent and hard work of every nominee sung out in the words of their employers, colleagues and their trainers.
Across a host of professions – legal, hospitality, engineering, accountancy – the apprentices and their employers ably set out why the apprenticeship programme is so popular.
Their stories show a real sense of commitment, enthusiasm and passion for training, gaining qualifications and wanting to progress in their careers.
And their individual stories demonstrate the variety in when, how and under what circumstances people enter apprentices – at all ages, with no qualifications as well as after degrees, in transition from school as well as after many years in work.
Some have pointed out how they had left university because they were getting into too much debt and wanted to earn while they were learning.
Others have seen an apprenticeship as the best route to change careers later in life, at last getting the opportunity to do something they've always wanted to do.
We will be sharing the very best of these stories in Adult Learners’ Week in June. They illustrate perfectly what we have always said; that apprenticeships for adults are essential for a successful economy as well as for allowing better social mobility in our society.
Of course, during this week’s National Apprenticeship Week we will be hearing lots of other examples of this positive impact. It’s great that apprentices are being valued and celebrated and that there are more and more employers, from micro-businesses to SMEs to large multinational employers, who are pledging to run their own apprenticeship scheme.
On the face of it, apprenticeships have been a huge success; people of all ages and employers from all sectors and of all sizes now see them as a highly effective career pathway and as improving business success.
But with all the good news there is also a note of caution. We were one of the most vocal in our concerns about loans for people over 24 doing advanced and higher-level apprenticeships.
It is good news that the government recognised that this policy had failed, but the pressure on skills budgets means that apprenticeships for those aged 24 and over will be at significantly lower levels than in recent years.
This has to be wrong at a time when the economy is starting to pick up and the recent UKCES Employer Skills Survey is already showing that many employers are facing skills shortages at intermediate levels. Without the support to train their existing staff, many employers will not be able to remain competitive – just when their opportunities for growth are appearing for the first time in many years.
That stunted growth will mean fewer new jobs created for young people entering the labour market for the first time, thus accentuating the appalling youth unemployment numbers.
The current growth in the economy is of course welcome, but for that growth to be sustainable then people need to progress at work in order to free up lower level jobs for new labour market entrants.
This means workers having the opportunities to gain new skills through both formal and informal learning.
Apprenticeships, and indeed traineeships, are one of the most effective ways of achieving that but they have to be supported by more employers and for all ages.
More apprenticeships will cost more money, so it is worrying that the funding cuts announced in the recent Skills Funding Statement will put further pressure on apprenticeship opportunities.
The future moves to greater control by employers may help make the funding argument with the Treasury, but we are particularly keen that the learner-perspective becomes part of the new policy and that employers of all sizes are supported to be part of the apprenticeship programme.
For apprenticeships to work for everyone, the government, employers, learning providers, learners and their representatives, must work together.
Providing opportunities for people of all ages, both in transition into the labour market and for those wanting to progress at work to develop their skills and their careers, is vital for the future economic and social well-being of our country.
Recruiting employers of all sizes and from all sectors to take the Apprenticeship Pledge and to offer apprenticeships will be a critical success measure for the programme over the coming years.