From education to employment

Planting the seeds for long-term success – UK businesses must prioritise investment in apprenticeships to deliver growth

Nichola Hay

Despite the uncertain economic outlook and a recent decline in job postings, the total number of job vacancies currently in the UK labour market – 1.2 million, according to the ONS – continues to sit at historically high levels. As a result, the so-called war for talent wages on, with recent reports suggesting that 76% of UK businesses are currently struggling to secure essential talent. 

To break free of this stranglehold on growth, many business leaders are keen to invest more strategically to equip their existing workforce with the necessary skills to fill critical vacancies. This has sparked a renewed interest in the Apprenticeship Levy, introduced in 2017, which grants employers access to funding to deliver enhanced learning and development opportunities to their workforce. 

The business case for investing in apprenticeships – diversity, resilience, and retention 

While the wider business community can often fail to grasp the full potential of apprenticeship programmes – typically associating it with simply creating a pipeline of school/college leaver talent. In reality, these programmes – which can offer on-the-job development to professionals at all levels – should be seen as an essential tool for both workforce planning and people development. 

Many employers increasingly recognise the strong business case for improving the level of diversity and inclusion within their organisation. However, current recruitment strategies and practices may be acting as a barrier to reaching applicants from diverse backgrounds. As a recent whitepaper from Robert Walters found, many employers persist in using channels for recruitment which deliver similar candidates. 

Offering an apprenticeship programme can help to overcome this barrier by opening new channels to a more diverse talent pool. Whether it’s parents looking to re-enter the workforce, the long-term economically inactive or recent graduates, an apprenticeship can create an opportunity for those candidates who may never have applied for a role due to their lack of direct experience or a specific university degree. 

We know we’re in a rapidly changing and increasingly challenging time for businesses. To stay one step ahead, business leaders must invest in developing a high-skilled workforce equipped with the skills to address future challenges. An apprenticeship programme can be flexible to a businesses’ needs; a company may choose to focus on attracting early talent – those with the knowledge to identify fresh new ideas and business opportunities. Equally, a programme could be designed to support more experienced members of the workforce while addressing any potential critical skills gaps, such as experience with new technology. 

In either case, investing in developing the skills of your staff will not only help improve business resilience, by helping to create a diverse, multi-skilled workforce, but it will equally support with staff retention. By providing staff with the opportunity to upskill, retrain for promotion or to transfer to other areas of the business, you demonstrate a clear commitment to their personal and career development. 

Designing the right apprenticeship programme for your business 

When setting out to incorporate apprenticeship programmes into your business, there are a few key things to consider from the outset. It is critical that business and HR leaders take the time to secure all relevant data on the current state of the workforce. This will prove helpful both for assessing the areas where action is most needed and for future benchmarking purposes. 

For instance, data on the ages, gender and ethnicity mix will give you an initial sense of any areas where change is needed. If a business, for example, identified that many mid- and senior-level managers were nearing retirement in the next five years, an apprenticeship programme could be designed to help with succession planning – providing an entry route to junior levels of the business by investing in their development through specific leadership programmes and coaching.  

Additionally, it is critical to take note of any areas of the business where external recruitment has stalled, and critical skill gaps are beginning to open up. This is especially true if the recruitment drive was needed to help the business transition to new ways of working brought about by new technology.  

For SMEs in particular – many of whom may not have the financial capacity for an entire L&D department – finding the right training provider and designing the most effective apprenticeship programmes will be essential to compete in the war for talent. Failure to invest their limited resources strategically will see talent secured by larger competitors with broader L&D capacity – so it’s not something they can afford to put on the back burner. 

Final thoughts

Ultimately, an apprenticeship won’t be the answer to all your business needs. However, by partnering with the right training provider and designing programmes tailored towards addressing your business needs, apprenticeships can provide an excellent solution to many critical problems. This will necessitate business leaders, working in partnership with HR and L&D teams, taking a complete account of their business’s priorities and working to understand where a well-developed apprenticeship programme can alleviate pressure and support growth.

By Nichola Hay, Director of Apprenticeship Strategy and Policy at BPP

Related Articles