From education to employment

Apprenticeships in the post COVID economy

Richard Marsh, Kaplan

Still everyone’s favourite answer?

After the 2008-10 recession many countries turned to Apprenticeship as a key part of their recovery plans.

This is because countries with strong Apprenticeship models (Germany / Austria / Swiss) were seen to have suffered less ill effects and in particular to have avoided the scourge of youth unemployment.

It is not yet clear who will be seen to have bounced-back-best from COVID and what role vocational education will play in this

In the UK we already find ourselves with:

  • An emerging labour and skills shortage. Caused by emigration out of the UK and a rapidly shifting set of work-skills required by employers
  • A greater proportion of 16-18s in full time education than ever before and a
  • A general desire to open-up, level–up and diversify work opportunities and rewards

These are macro-social and economic trends that seem tailor made for Vocational Education solutions.

Hence the rapid publication of an FE & Skills white paper and Skills Bill in England.

Whilst decisive action is comforting, I am sure I am not alone in wondering where are Apprenticeships in this. In particular:

Has the dream of Apprenticeships as a mainstream option for school leavers in England been abandoned?

The reduction in the number of School leavers going into Apprenticeships is now a ‘trend’ and is a reflection of the new standard apprenticeship paradigm – which is based on advanced and higher level skills. Not entry-level courses.

This fundamental shift is not addressed in the White paper or Skills Bill nor is it acknowledged anywhere as an accepted and welcome consequence of the reforms.   

Indeed beyond some tinkering with multi-employer models (flexi apps) and levy donations the former flagship programme is no longer being trumpeted as the answer to the big Skills questions.

Apprenticeships aren’t the only fruit

The counter to this, there is of course relief that we don’t have yet another Apprenticeship reform or review ongoing and that there is perhaps now an acceptance that Apprenticeships aren’t the answer to everything.

Indeed since the 2020 Apprenticeship vision was passed we have been drifting free – a policy on the loose…. but while it is a pleasant relief not to be untangling a new plan for Apprenticeships if you are not clear about where you are going – you are vulnerable.

The CBI pointed out this week that the Apprenticeship levy is not being fully utilised (by its payers) as these big employers are not creating enough Apprenticeships to use up their contributions. It is hard to argue with the cold reality of this. (And it is a different concern to the ‘can the levy pay for everything for everyone’ question).

The CBI proposal is to flex the Levy so that it can be used to pay for more than Apprenticeships.

Other commentators want to go the other way and restrict what and whom employers can employ as Apprentices. Their logic is that by stopping someone from training an existing 30-year-old worker then an opportunity will appear for a 17 year old instead.

In the absence of any ongoing policy ‘vision’, this type of land grab for the soul of Apprenticeships is to be expected.

Evolutionary ideas

Going back to our challenges of skills shortages, rapidly changing skills needs, a lack of work experience amongst teenagers and plainly unequal employment outcomes what could Apprenticeship UK do to help? Here are some suggestions based on recent conversations with employers and training providers:

  • Pay a reasonable training rate for courses in the areas where we need people and where Brexit and COVID has had most impact. How can we expect to train a new generation of Care workers when the rate for doing so is just 20% of the rates paid for training Golf course managers?
  • Allow providers and employers to teach what is needed today – moving more quickly than the 800 standards can be rewritten. Apprenticeships need a core of basic knowledge and skills but where job roles are changing quickly then allowing for the adding of relevant new skills and knowledge should be encouraged and not excluded or delayed.
  • Apply some common sense to the regulation of the programme. ‘20% off the job’ is a great guide but if a good course takes 19.5% of work time to deliver is still a good course – Functional skills is another area where common sense is not prevailing.
  • Allow employers to open high-value training programmes to a more diverse intake by mixing general education and Apprenticeship funding so that longer or more intense training can be provided to help those who need it – equality through equity. 
  • Engage employers by permitting them to deliver some of their programmes for their own employees without the bureaucracy of having to become a registered training provider.
  • Ensure that T levels allow for progression into Apprenticeships. There is a real danger that a T level completer will be too qualified for a Level 3 Apprenticeship but not experienced enough for a Higher Apprenticeship. Meaning that they will end up dropping out of T levels to get an Apprenticeship or staying in full-time education longer than they wish too.

Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Director at Kaplan Financial 

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