From education to employment

Employers in the driving seat: Wrong turn for Apprenticeships?

Dr Michaela Brockmann, Lecturer, Southampton Education School, University of Southampton, Dr Rob Smith, Professor of Education, Birmingham City University, and Dr Vanessa Cui, Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Practice And Culture in Education, Birmingham City University

The attitude and engagement of employers towards both on- and off-the-job training is one of the most critical factors in determining the quality of an apprenticeship. Our research “Employers’ attitudes to training – critical to delivering a world-class apprenticeship system“, funded by the Gatsby Foundation, revealed that current regulation and the notion of putting employers in the driving seat leave considerable flexibility in the ways in which apprenticeships are run.

Much of the attention in recent apprenticeship reforms has been on the off-the-job element (as reflected in the recent Skills for Jobs White Paper). This is a direct result of previous legislation and the widespread practice of recruiting apprentices whilst providing little or no training in a context where the 280 Guided Learning Hours required could be spent entirely on assessment of skills in the workplace.

The new funding rule, whereby 20% of an apprentice’s contracted hours must be spent on off-the-job training, seeks to ensure that apprentices have access to substantial training.

At the same time, however, there is still little in the current regulations in terms of employer responsibility for on-the-job training. Notions of apprenticeship as ‘a job with training’ and on-the-job training as ‘the opportunity to practise new skills’ constitute mixed messages at best.

The research showed that awareness and understanding of apprenticeship as a model of learning differed widely between the employers in the study. Whilst on- and off-the-job training in sectors such as construction and engineering was far more comprehensive than what was required by the apprenticeship criteria, in retail and social care it went little beyond training for all staff.

Quality on-the-job training

Employers in the engineering, construction and IT sectors provided comprehensive on-the-job training as part of high-quality apprenticeships, designed to develop their future workforce. These employers took a central role in co-ordinating, delivering and monitoring apprenticeships. They closely collaborated with training providers and ensured that the off- and on-the-job elements were aligned, allowing the apprentice to apply in the workplace the knowledge gained off the job, supported by carefully developed in-house training plans.

Notably, on-the-job training was designed to develop competence in job roles that were far broader than the scope of the apprenticeships. Managers commented that, whilst they made sure that the apprenticeship criteria were achieved, their primary concern was with occupational breadth and that the apprentice was becoming a full member of the team.

To this end, apprentices were placed with different areas of work for months at a time to ensure that they gained an understanding of the whole of the organisation, seen as vital for collaboration and teamwork. Central to this were practices of mentoring and shadowing, which took place throughout the apprenticeship until apprentices were deemed to be able to work independently. At the heart of each of these organisations was a culture of workplace training, in which apprentices’ status as learners was fully acknowledged and learning was supported.

Employers providing limited on-the-job training

In contrast, apprentices with the retail and social care employers were first and foremost fully productive workers rather than learners. In these organisations, the apprenticeship was understood to refer to the off-the-job element only (the 20% of an apprentice’s contracted hours) and seen as separate from the person’s job. As a result, there was little in the workplace beyond training for all staff, such as inductions, and apprentices were expected to ‘pick things up’ as part of their day job.

Whilst the apprenticeship was delivered by the training provider, employers saw their responsibility mainly in terms of line managing the apprentices, such as ensuring they were given sufficient time ‘to work on their apprenticeship’ and acting as a point of contact.

Workplace learning, where it happened, was haphazard, and the onus for seeking out learning opportunities was on the apprentices. Whilst employers encouraged them to approach senior workers for shadowing or to research aspects of their work for the off-the-job element, by their own admission, there was little time in practice due to pressurised work environments. Apprentices were left to their own devices in workplaces with limited awareness of apprenticeship and little structured support.

In social care, employers emphasised the importance of training for all employees (including apprentices) before they started working with vulnerable service users so that training was largely front-loaded (meeting the requirements of the Care Certificate). The apprenticeship was largely subsumed by this, and there was little extra training or support for apprentices.

Quality off-the-job training

The research also revealed variability in the quality of off-the-job training. In the best cases – and there were some shining examples, notably in construction and engineering – apprentices had a carefully designed training package that complemented on-the-job training and that was fully responsive to employers’ needs.

In one case, a bespoke two year programme of front-loaded off-the-job training ensured that apprentices in their third year had all the foundational knowledge to function (with over-sight) in the workplace. This was attractive to employers in contract-based, rapid turnover businesses. Another successful example was structured in line with the more traditional day-release model which guaranteed the 20% minimum of time and was characterised by ongoing employer input to the college provider about content and levels of support.

The research suggested that in successful apprenticeships, the employer was fully invested in a broader understanding of apprenticeship. One of the employers described his apprentices as ‘the lifeblood’ of the company. Indeed, the attitude of the employer largely determined the extent to which apprenticeship became the means of growing a company and/or ensuring workplace knowledge was passed on and developed. Importantly, the employer’s investment was balanced by an ethic of care for the apprentice.

A key ingredient of all the high quality off-the-job training in the research was a shared understanding on the part of employers and providers that apprenticeship involved a commitment that extended beyond the company and provider’s self-interest and that connected with a commitment to a regional or a sectoral skills agenda. In other words, apprenticeship was not viewed as just addressing employer needs in the present, rather, it was orientated towards future progress – of the individual apprentice, the company and the community more broadly.

Employers providing limited off-the-job training

This research revealed that while there are shining examples of apprenticeships that work in this way, there was another side, in which apprenticeship was viewed merely as ‘an income stream’ for employers and providers.

In these examples, apprentices’ off-the-job training was in the workplace, was often only a couple of hours a week and put the onus on the apprentice to compile evidence of the time they spent on off-the-job training materials.

At their worst then, these were examples of the kind of technical and vocational training programmes so sharply criticised by Professor Alison Wolf in her 2011 “Review of Vocational Education“. In these cases, apprenticeships were regarded as an income stream by both employer and provider and the apprentices themselves were objectified and exploited as there were no jobs at the end of the training.

The report points out that apprentices in industries not traditionally associated with apprenticeship may be more vulnerable to this kind of exploitation.

Partnership and quality apprenticeships

In contrast to the lack of regulation for employers, training providers felt overburdened by the accountability paperwork. Working in a brokering role with SMEs in particular, college providers had to be carefully supported and their engagement with the programmes scaffolded. This usually required the highly experienced providers to take on all the administrative responsibilities and to work at maintaining a long term partnership with the employers.

The regional authority was also seen to have an active role in supporting SME engagement with apprenticeship programmes. This again highlighted the importance of a shared commitment and understanding of apprenticeship across a network of stakeholder relationships. Typically, this was a localised understanding founded on a set of common professional commitments and on mutual trust.


A series of recommendations arose from the research. Government policy on apprenticeships needs to focus on creating the conditions in which they can flourish.

As the Richard Report suggested in 2012, this means limiting what can be called an apprenticeship.

According to this report’s evidence, current policy is allowing the apprenticeship ‘brand’ to be tarnished.

In addition, funding for training programmes and vocational education needs to be evenly spread to avoid apprenticeships becoming a ‘catch-all’ income stream.

Finally, if employers and colleges are going to join in the kind of shared purpose that underpins successful apprenticeships, this necessarily means sharing the administrative burden of accountability that comes with public funding.

By Dr Michaela Brockmann, Lecturer, Southampton Education School, University of Southampton, Dr Rob Smith, Professor of Education, Birmingham City University, and Dr Vanessa Cui, Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Practice And Culture in Education, Birmingham City University

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