It’s been a rollercoaster ride for apprenticeships of late, but we see reassuring signs that the new standards are bedding in. With employers of all shapes and sizes starting to embrace them, in some cases for the first time, apprenticeships are closer than ever to the heart of the UK skills agenda.
That being said, while businesses have, to date, been leading the way to create new apprenticeships, it is critical that the education and skills sector is set up to support them as effectively as possible. To make this happen, there needs to be a continual dialogue, so both educational institutions and employers understand the key needs and concerns of the other.
One of the primary issues businesses still face when it comes to using apprenticeships are the prevailing misconceptions around what they can be used for, and who by. This is where specialists from the education and skills sector – the experts in learning – can play a key role, getting business leaders and their employees to understand the role of apprenticeships in their skills ecosystem and their individual careers.
To understand this further, we recently conducted research with 1,000 HR decision makers to uncover their priority training needs and whether they would be able – or willing – to use apprenticeships to address them. With over a third of employers telling us they anticipated a cut in training budgets over the coming years, funds to address training requirements are limited, so it is crucial that businesses are able to maximise the opportunities available to them – like those offered by the levy.
One critical issue currently facing the majority of businesses is a lack of quality leadership. Only a third of UK businesses are very confident about their long-term supply of leaders and managers. This is a significant issue in the modern workplace, where flatter workplace structures mean leadership abilities like communication, critical thinking, and integrity are needed across a whole organisation – from top to bottom. With such a significant skills gap, businesses are leaving themselves and their employees exposed. But with shrinking funds, the ability to address the shortage of leadership talent is limited.
This is where apprenticeships could make all the difference. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy and new funding systems present a huge opportunity for organisations to invest in new and existing talent in this area in line with their specific business needs.
However, businesses are reluctant to use levy funding to support this kind of leadership and management training, despite the fact that they recognise the need for (or already have in place) formal training programmes that, with some work and support from relevant awarding organisations and providers, could form part of new apprenticeship schemes.
One of the main deterrents is that well over half of employers (58 per cent) feel middle and senior managers would be unwilling to be seen as an apprentice, citing the “reputation and image” of apprenticeships – and the implication it means they need additional support – as their primary concerns.
Perceptions must change
Learning – whether it's called an apprenticeship or something else – is clearly critical throughout people's careers. The perception that it’s not something that should be an embedded part of people's roles must change.
Apprenticeships, long associated with low wages, trade, and technically routed industries, have a particularly uphill battle when it comes to challenging some of these misconceptions.
But the new apprenticeship standards have the potential to overturn the stigma once and for all. Designed by employers to equip apprentices with the specific skills they need to succeed in their role, their unwavering relevance to the requirements of learners' daily jobs, and the immediacy with which they can be applied in the workplace, has the potential to attract a much broader cross-section of apprentices who can see the manifold of benefits of apprenticeships from the get-go.
For example, existing employees are far more likely to engage with apprenticeships when they understand the skills and knowledge they will acquire, and how these will support them in their current position as well as longer-term career progression. There is a huge opportunity for those of us in the education sector to support businesses and their employees in understanding this.
Management apprenticeships are a great route to get people at all levels of an organisation upskilled in some of the most important attributes for the workplace, which can have a transformative positive effect on productivity. If high-impact apprentices are a feature in every department, awareness of the value apprentices bring will quickly spread.
This is just one example, but we must put aside the idea that ‘learning’ stops when people enter the professional world. Instilling the sense that education itself is a continual, constantly incremental practice – whether someone is at the start of schooling or at the mid-point of their professional life – will encourage people to consider all types of training and development, not just the ones they are used to. We know that employers use training and development to keep their business agile and fit for the future. We must work with them and support them in understanding that apprenticeships can, and should, play a part in achieving this.
Jake Tween is head of apprenticeships at leadership qualifications provider ILM