Three weeks before Christmas, after one hell of a hectic year, Nicki Hay had a reason to celebrate: she received a letter from the Queen.
Hay, the chief operating officer of Estio, a training provider that specialises in digital and tech apprenticeships, and vice-chair of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, was being honoured with an MBE for her services to apprenticeships. And although she couldn’t celebrate with her family in person – “we would have definitely had a party” – she celebrated with a virtual party on Zoom.
She has received assurances from the powers-that-be that she will pick up her MBE in person later this year, when it is safe to do so. But she jokes: “It would be just my luck that I’d be waving to Prince Charles on Zoom."
This official recognition of Hay's commitment to apprenticeships is well-earned: she’s been at the forefront of developing apprenticeship routes, engaging employers and promoting the value of apprenticeships to young people and their parents for decades.
Apprenticeships: Children in primary 'should learn about becoming an apprentice'
Hay grew up in Surrey with two brothers and a sister. Her father was an engineer, and her mother was a director within a training organisation – like mother, like daughter. Her mother, she says, is her role model: she has a really strong work ethic and encouraged that in her children, says Hay.
Fighting back from childhood illness
She explains that at school she was definitely more sporty than academic – and was actually touted for the England hockey team later in life – but everything came to a halt when she was 13, when she was diagnosed with cancer in the bone in her leg, and the doctors told her parents that she may never walk again.
But Hay says she was determined to get back on the sports pitch, and, in the end, missed just one year of school. She returned to playing sport and went on to complete her GCSEs and A levels as planned.
From sixth form, she went to work at the Co-op bank as a banking clerk, which she says gave her "great life experience”, working across a range of departments. From the Co-op, Hay went to work for Lloyds Bank as an underwriter – and was just one of three women among 3,000 men on the banking floor.
“You could spot the three women because, at lunchtime, we were the only three people on the floor, because the men used to go off to the wine bars,” she says.
And although that job gave her brilliant networking, communication and influencing skills, it wasn’t long before Hay decided that she wouldn’t be able to climb the ladder any further in such a male-dominated environment.
The spark of passion for apprenticeships
It was her next move that sparked a passion for further education and apprenticeships. And it all started with freight forwarding – a crucial profession that many may not even be aware of. Freight forwarders organise shipments to get goods from the manufacturer to market – an industry for which there wasn’t an apprenticeship. Until Hay came along.
While working for a company called Agency Sector Management (ASM), Hay and others were keen to tackle the issue of the ageing workforce in freight forwarding, and worked with employers to develop a youth training scheme to support young people into the industry. The scheme was hugely successful – and it wasn’t long before an apprenticeship framework was developed.
“That's really where my love then came from, working with young people, helping them get the opportunity, working with those employers, helping them to realise the potential and how they could embed that into their business,” she says.
ASM was sold to Quantica Training, which went on to become the biggest training provider in London. Hay rose to be operations director, doing every job role on her way up – something which, she says, stands her in really good stead today in her role as chief operating officer.
“I did recruitment, quality, I've been a trainer, I've been an assessor, worked my way up and covered all the different roles, which now in my role makes a massive difference. If you've had a go at all of the roles, you understand what staff are facing, and they can’t pull the wool over your eyes,” she says.
Years working across different training providers followed Hay’s role at Quantica – including setting one up one of her own with a partner, Outsource Training and Development. And today she leads Estio with that commitment to promoting the value of apprenticeships to employers and students.
Supporting early talent
She says that while her biggest love is around early talent, she also really enjoys engaging with employers and supporting them to utilise apprenticeships in their own organisation for existing staff. And when the levy was introduced 2017, this work really kicked into gear.
“The levy has really changed the language of how we work with employers and how we pitch to those employers: we become really embedded in their business and their thinking, using the apprenticeship as a tool to develop people already existing in the business,” she says.
When it comes to promoting the value of apprenticeships to students and parents, one of Hay's biggest bugbears is around the careers service – she says that it's never achieved the right balance between vocational and academic pathways.
And so, in an attempt to address this, Hay has done plenty of volunteer outreach in schools. As part of her work on the 14-19 strategic plan in Hounslow, she, alongside others, set up a calendar of activities for schools to promote apprenticeships: they had 10 apprentices go in and do a speed-dating type activity with students to share their experiences, and they had apprentices and employers host "chat shows" for secondary students.
It’s not just about getting the students enthusiastic about apprenticeships, but the teachers and the parents, too, says Hay.
“Often, we found that we were getting to the students and they were quite excited about exploring those opportunities, but then that was dumbed down by parents," she says.
"And actually, involving parents is two-fold, because you can educate them on the vocational routes for their children, but also the opportunities for themselves, particularly if they were struggling to get into work themselves or are in low-paid jobs."
Hay has two daughters and says that, as a parent, she recognised early on that they wouldn’t take the same path: and while one daughter went on to university, the other dropped out before going on to thrive in an apprenticeship.
Shouting about apprenticeships
It’s clear that Hay is dedicated to apprenticeships, giving up so much of her own free time to push the agenda and raise the profile of training providers.
As well as being vice-chair on the AELP board, Hay is also chair of the AELP’s London board and is on the board for Skills for Londoners. It’s in these roles that she’s shouting about apprenticeships louder than ever.
“[Skills for Londoners] are really good at supporting independent training providers, but sometimes we're at meetings and it's often about colleges, and they just forget to say independent training providers. So I'm constantly saying, 'And don't forget independent training providers'! And they say, 'Oh yes, and ITPS,'” she laughs.
Hay says she’s really proud of how training providers have responded to the pandemic, going above and beyond for their learners and business, even if, at times, they have lacked support.
The fight for financial support for training providers was well documented last year, and eventually the Department for Education did introduce a provider relief scheme. Hay says that it should be introduced again – alongside a range of other support that would prove the government is supporting training providers to survive the pandemic.
Hay says that around 30 per cent of learners are coming out of funding due to different work environments being rendered inaccessible due to Covid, and that a one-off payment for additional engagement or a one-off completion payment would be welcomed. She also suggests moving forward the last day of learning activity payment to when learners go into gateway.
Functional skills, she says, has been the “thorn in our side”.
Currently, apprentices cannot complete their apprenticeship until they have passed functional skills – however, due to the pandemic, many of the exams have not taken place. In summer 2020, the government allowed for centre-assessed grades to be introduced for functional skills, but retracted this in the autumn. As a result, thousands of apprentices are unable to progress.
Hay says that the centre-assessed grades must be reintroduced.
“If I'm honest, it's really disappointing how slowly the government has responded in thinking about the learners’ needs for functional skills within the apprenticeship standard, and it is causing a barrier to apprentices achieving the apprenticeship, when there doesn't need to be one” she says.
“It's frustrating when there could be a range of flexibilities: centre assessment grades or online exams. If learners really need to come into centres, we need to have all the protocols and safety in place to be able to bring those learners in to be able to do the exam. It’s not about learners not achieving the maths and English, it’s about getting them through the exam, so they can go through EPA. It’s disappointing to see that the government isn't seeing that.”
Hay has ideas for the Kickstart programme, too, and expresses frustration that learners who are put on to the scheme can’t automatically progress into an apprenticeship.
“After talking to quite a few organisations, I do think these Kickstart positions have displaced apprenticeships,” she says.
“One of my asks would be that anyone that's going on a Kickstart programme, if they were able to move to an apprenticeship before the six months finishes, keep the wage subsidy and the employer incentive, it means that that person, particularly a young person, would have sustainable employment for the length of the apprenticeship programme.”
There’s no doubt about it, 2020 was a tough year for apprenticeships and training providers, and with apprenticeship starts dropping under the new national lockdown, it’s clear that the apprenticeships programme will need more voices than ever shouting about its value, and ensuring that training providers can weather the storm.
And it’s hard to imagine anyone shouting louder than Nicki Hay.