The future of apprenticeships is back at the top of the skills agenda. Apprenticeships are frequently in the news, whether it's regarding government decisions on how they should be funded, the Commons Education Select Committee inquiry, fears about skills shortages or the prime minister setting out expansion plans for the programme. And all this as we head towards an election.
Mostly this is good news. But constant analysis of what is already a very successful programme can be destabilising, affecting the planning that employers and providers need to do to get schemes up and running. Apprenticeships are a long-term initiative: addressing skill shortages through training that can last two, three or even more years requires a lot of work between employers and training providers. For that you need a degree of certainty and stability, so how do providers see the future of the programme?
Employers have always been in the driving seat of apprenticeships - and that is a good thing. All apprentices are employees, so the programme is driven by employers making the decision to take someone on and choosing which apprentice framework and training provider to work with.
Unfortunately, many employers do not see themselves as the driver of the programme, so we need to adjust this perception. This is why my organisation, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, supports the government's review of apprenticeship frameworks. We welcome the increased flexibility in setting the outcomes of the new standards, allowing the delivery of training to be adapted. At the same time, we have to ensure that the standards also meet learners' needs - otherwise we will struggle to attract the right apprentices.
Flexibility is key
The process of reviewing apprenticeship standards for each sector has been challenging, especially because many employers were happy with the existing frameworks. The government should not be too prescriptive and should avoid setting out requirements for testing, grading and qualifications; the current system works and we should build on it, not replace it. Thankfully, ministers are listening and we are seeing more flexibility in the development of the new standards, but we need to move forward at a pace that does not affect delivery.
Recent ministerial statements on how to fund apprenticeships seem to better reflect feedback from employers. Very few businesses support the principle of direct funding, but everyone supports employers having more control over the money and being able to work with a training provider to manage this element of the programme. This is about employers being in the driving seat, not about the routing of funding.
If comments from employers and the skills minister about ending mandatory cash contributions from businesses towards training costs are taken on board, then this model will work for employers - especially small and medium-sized enterprises. It will also allow us to simplify the funding system. We are now working on a model that is based on our first principles of employer choice and simplicity, which should deliver what everyone wants for the programme - more employer engagement and more opportunities for young people.
Every political party wants to increase the number of apprenticeships. The prime minister has set out his ambition to have 3 million apprenticeship starts in the next Parliament - there may be well over 2 million apprentices by the end of this one. The projected increase can be achieved but it will require additional investment from the government, so it was good to see David Cameron back up his ambition with the recognition that extra money will be needed.
Any additional investment in the apprenticeship programme will lead to enormous benefits for employers and the government. To create further opportunities, especially for young people, we need to be clear about the future direction of the programme, to be secure about the funding beyond a 12-month period, and to give employers and training providers the stability to produce long-term workforce-development plans with apprenticeship at their core.
We also need to ensure that candidates for these updated, stretching standards have the skills to embrace the opportunities on offer. The traineeship programme is very important for providing these basic pre-employment skills. Expanding traineeships by allowing all quality apprenticeship providers to deliver them will be key to that process.
This is a very positive time for apprenticeships. With the growth of higher apprenticeships, we have an all-age, all-sector and all-levels programme for the first time ever. If we get employers, government and training providers working together, we can build on that success and attract more employers and more candidates, thus ensuring increased economic growth.
Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers.