How businesses can make a success of the apprenticeship levy

The apprenticeship levy is a great opportunity for businesses to unlock the potential of young people. So be proactive about it, writes Sandra Kelly, head of education at Whitbread

Sandra Kelly

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Three days. That’s how long it takes to see the difference that an apprenticeship can make to a young person. And it is a joy to watch it happen.

Companies have everything to gain when they play a bigger role in the education of young people. While still in the early stages, the introduction of the apprenticeship levy has been a step in the right direction for large businesses like Whitbread to improve the quality of apprenticeships.

Whitbread owns both Premier Inn and Costa Coffee, and across these brands we see thousands of young people shine through apprenticeships every year. We didn’t get to this point straight away, however. Five years ago, we took a look at our people turnover figures (which were too high) and the availability of the skills we needed for our workforce (which were lacking) and decided to do something about it.

We decided to think differently. Our business leads were told specifically to get on first-name terms with their local Job Centre Plus staff. We set up relationships with local schools and colleges. Rather than wait for people to come to us, we wanted to get into our communities and find people. Then, when we found them, we wanted to help them to develop the skills that we needed.

This simple change in approach has transformed our business. Our WISE programme (Whitbread Investing in Skills and Employment) opened our eyes to the real state of Britain’s much-maligned young people. What we have found is that if you give young people a chance, a sense of direction and milestones to work towards, as a business you will be rewarded many times over.

'We must support the levy – not oppose it'

And the first time you notice it is three days into an apprenticeship programme. On day one, frankly, our apprentices have no idea what they are doing there. The next day they are prepared and they get stuck in. By day three they come to work with a clear idea of what they want to get out of an apprenticeship with us. Then they work hard.

We have structures in place to welcome apprentices into the business and help them make the most of their career here. If they're interested in gaining an industry standard approved qualification, our new employees are nominated by their line manager to join a new apprenticeship cohort within the region so that our apprentices can move through their programme as a group. They are supported by their managers and team leaders when at work, and supported by their trainers and assessors on and off the job. The clarity of the structured programme and the fact that 25 per cent of our hotel managers and 40 per cent of our hotel team leaders were apprentices themselves on our programmes ensures that our new apprentices settle very quickly, and retention is much higher than non-apprentices with the same length of service.

Our experiences are so far from the stereotype of young people that I feel strongly that it’s important to recognise it. It’s why for a business such as Whitbread, with a large need for entry-level workers and a large geographical reach, the government’s apprenticeship levy is something to support, rather than oppose.

Funding cuts in further education mean companies must play a bigger role in the education of our young people. The levy formalises the way they can do that. I want to tell businesses that if they invest in young people, the business reward for them will be enormous.

'Helping thousands of apprentices to shine'

For us, that’s not just about investing the money – it’s about investing the time to build relationships with the local community. It’s about investing in an apprenticeship structure that gives clarity, direction and parameters to those people in our society who often need them the most. And it’s about giving those young people responsibility and allowing them to prosper.

Since the introduction of the levy, Whitbread has seen a huge uplift in applications which demonstrates that the ongoing work by government and businesses to raise awareness and change the perception of the value of apprenticeships is beginning to take effect and reposition the traditional view.

Getting it all set up has taken a lot of hard work and commitment, and it’s really helped having a dedicated team member who manages all the financial aspects – including funding, resourcing, data submissions and new regulations. Clear financial management has been paramount in ensuring efficiencies around the levy and preventing any teething issues that may have arisen. Furthermore, collaborative meetings between the management and internal tax and internal finance teams have been useful in keeping the right people informed always and achieving transparency.

I see thousands of young people shine through the apprenticeship scheme every year. The apprenticeship levy should allow thousands more to do the same.

Sandra Kelly is head of education at Whitbread 

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Sandra Kelly

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