A small rise in the UK productivity at the beginning of July gave the government some comfort after a disappointing increase in unemployment. While any increase is undoubtedly a good thing, our low productivity is still a big worry. We lag far behind many comparable countries and our growth is largely dependent on a growing labour force rather than any rise in productivity. However, rates of pay will only increase if productivity improves, which makes it an issue not just for the government but for all of us.
Those of us working in FE have long championed the clear link between a more highly skilled workforce and higher productivity, so we regularly look for ways to demonstrate this link and prove the value and importance of vocational education. Indeed, just last week the City & Guilds Group released some findings from our joint research with the Centre for Economics and Business Research, which reveals that a 1 per cent increase in vocational skills would uplift this country’s GDP by £163 billion in a decade’s time. In addition, a 10 per cent increase in vocational education enrolment by 16- to 18-year-olds would lead to a 1.5 percentage point drop in youth unemployment.
Nowhere is this link clearer than with apprenticeships. Investment in vocational education develops knowledge and skills and opens up great opportunities for people; but when combined with training in the workplace it delivers problem-solving, practical know-how and application, and autonomy – as well as boosting productivity.
But is this message getting through to employers quickly enough? Of course, there are many enlightened businesses that currently employ apprentices and will continue to do so. They understand that not only are apprenticeships good for individuals but they also make good business sense. However, there are many other businesses that haven’t yet engaged with apprenticeships. They haven’t received or bought into the message about what the programme can bring, and still don’t believe the numbers stack up.
The government has made much of its ambition for 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020. This is a great goal which, if realised, will contribute to that 10 per cent uplift in vocational education I mentioned earlier. Ultimately, though, it’s completely unrealistic if we can’t convince employers of apprenticeships’ value.
As the new apprenticeship system puts employers in the driving seat, the other message that needs to get across is one of quality – for the individuals as well as the employer. All apprenticeships aren’t created equal and if we truly want to show the link between apprenticeships and productivity, then we need to be single-minded about developing relevant, high-quality programmes with industry. We must make sure that apprenticeships are stimulating, challenging and add value to their service sector, ensuring we don’t fall back on short apprenticeships with limited opportunity to increase skills, experience or business prospects. Particularly, we should push to increase the numbers of quality apprenticeships in manufacturing, construction and the knowledge sectors such as finance and digital.
The apprenticeship levy on businesses may offer a sustainable funding model for the future, but we also need to make sure positives from the current trailblazers aren’t lost. We should press for a funding regime that does not incentivise early completion but encourages employers and providers to support apprentices to develop experience, autonomy and productivity before being signed off for assessment at the end of their apprenticeship – a positive feature of the interim trailblazer funding regime that could be unconsciously lost in the policy changes to come.
As the trailblazer groups work through what they want from their apprenticeships, the education sector and the government need to get better at creating a dialogue with the rest of the 5 million businesses in the UK, helping them to see the economic value of quality apprenticeships and the real benefits they bring to business.
In this era of employer ownership of skills, let’s make sure we help employers to put quality at the heart of the new apprenticeship system, which in turn will provide the output evidence that proves apprenticeships are most certainly worth the investment.