Nearly three months have passed since the electorate cast their votes in the historic EU referendum, signalling the end of the UK’s 43-year relationship with the EU. But as the dust settles in the post-Brexit world, what does this mean for the apprenticeship programme in the UK?
Before the referendum, there was much discussion about the negative impact a leave vote would have on apprenticeships in this country. Many believed that the proposed levy could not go ahead, while others called for the target of 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020 to be urgently reviewed.
However, a different picture is starting to emerge. The progression of the apprenticeship levy, announced last month, is testament to this.
I believe that, rather than sounding a death knell, the new environment we find ourselves in has created a real opportunity to align the apprenticeship programme with the new global economic ambitions of the UK.
Strong skills narrative
Attracting more inward investment and concluding new trade deals is a key part of the government’s economic strategy, and we need a strong skills narrative to support these ambitions.
Research shows that businesses with a presence in this country, and hence direct experience of our workforce, tend to rate skills in the UK higher than those organisations that do not have UK-based operations. This certainly supports my experiences of working with potential investors and trade partners. When I was the deputy director-general of the CBI, I was frequently told by companies who were seeking to invest in the UK for the first time that their concern was the supply of a highly skilled workforce.
The next WorldSkills competition is a key opportunity for the UK to shout about how skilled we are as a trading nation
The issue of quality has long divided opinion on apprenticeship reforms, and I have no doubt that this debate will continue. But if the new strategies for international growth are to be realised, we must grab the quality agenda with both hands and look further afield to ensure that the apprenticeship programme is reflecting real, world-class standards. At WorldSkills UK, we have developed thousands of apprentices to perform their roles at level 6 and above – the vocational equivalent of an honours degree – by preparing them for the international WorldSkills competition.
I strongly believe that by using the WorldSkills standards, which underpin the competition and are based on high-quality international training programmes, we can inspire our apprentices to develop their skills beyond competence. This method is already being used by some of the UK’s multinational employers, a prime example of which is Toyota. They are using their apprentices’ participation in WorldSkills UK competitions and development programmes to drive up their own training to a world-class standard.
Of course, raising standards is only part of the story. We need to ensure that we are promoting the skills of our workforce internationally. We are currently preparing Team UK to compete in the next WorldSkills competition in Abu Dhabi next year. Given that the competition is supported by more than 70 governments around the world, this is a key opportunity for the UK to shout about how skilled we are as a trading nation.
We must promote and sell the skills and mindset of our home-grown talent, otherwise we won’t secure our future global competitiveness.
WorldSkills UK stands ready to play its part in shaping world-class excellence in our apprenticeship programmes. We need governments, businesses, trade and investment agencies to join us and do the same.
Dr Neil Bentley is chief executive of WorldSkills UK