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Successful and accessible apprenticeship provision requires strategic and sustainable partnerships

Neil Coates, Chief Operating Officer- Enterprise and Employment, London South East Colleges

#NationalApprenticeshipWeek rightly shines a light on the many opportunities and successes that becoming an apprentice can bring. 

It also helps raise awareness of the benefits businesses can gain from engaging with colleges and the important role that apprenticeships can play in filling skills gaps. 

Yet beyond the clear advantages to both employers and apprentices, balancing supply with employer demand can be challenging.  As a large general FE college, we offer 36 apprenticeship products and are committed to starts throughout the year. 

With Apprenticeship standards now being our main product, the need to have high quality sequencing of learning is vital. This means having carefully planned provision in place – but this can be at odds with the requirement from employers to meet their demand instantly. 

If we can’t start or offer training as soon as it is requested by employers – the perception can be that we are not reacting efficiently to industry needs. However, a knee-jerk, instantaneous approach will only drive a transactional relationship, rather than genuinely balancing supply and demand of skills training in our local communities. 

Moving away from transactional relationships to more strategic, sustainable partnerships is our focus. We want to ensure provision is well planned and aligned to demand – and this can only happen if industry and education work closely, with a similar vision. 

This more genuine model of employer engagement requires a change in attitude towards interactions with businesses. In our experience, retention of employer partners has a far greater value than acquisition – but this requires a constant commitment to improving the way we work together, strengthening and developing long term relationships, rather than focusing on many one-off transactions.  

Having embodied this more strategic approach, it’s vital to have conversations about planned starts. The size of a learning cohort supports a good quality experience. This must be well sequenced to ensure the apprentice and their employer understand what they are doing, where they are going and how they will achieve their goals. 

For many years, the focus, quite rightly, has been on putting employers ‘in the driving seat’ to determine the skills they require and the training needed to support this.  

However, as an education provider, while we work closely with industry to understand the skills they need, it is our responsibility to determine how the learner will get there – which is not always achieved by instantly delivering the skills training required. 

A wider view on the talent pipeline is needed to ensure skills are being built at all levels – with a solid foundation that will go on to support the higher-level skills demand. 

This means that we need to provide a well-rounded and comprehensive offer if we are to meet the growing number of higher-level skills demands, and truly support local communities to ‘level-up’. 

Ensuring progression opportunities are available and accessible to all will help build the crucial talent pipeline, stimulating a highly qualified and efficient workforce going forward. 

And herein lies a further issue. In the attempt to grow provision at higher levels, entry level programmes, which enable people to acquire vital employment skills, risk being neglected. These are the very pathways needed to ensure people have the appropriate skills, knowledge and behaviours required for a real-world setting – and essential for any type of progression. 

With today’s report from the London Progression Collaboration revealing a 72 per cent decline in entry-level apprenticeships starts since 2014 – the problem becomes clear. 

Removing products such as the Level 2 business admin programme (for example) has had a hugely negative impact on the entry level apprenticeship starts. This has subsequently shut down the opportunity for people who need an entry gateway into the industry and into a career – with no bridge available to move from programmes like traineeships into apprenticeships and then onto advanced and higher-level courses. 

To tackle this, we need to work with employers in our communities. Together, we must design plans that develop a talent pipeline over a period of time – using a range of high-quality products at all levels. This will ensure we have clear pathways for progression, intrinsically linked to a strong workforce development programme with our employer partners. 

Apprenticeships offer so many opportunities and are a fundamental tool to support social mobility. We must continue to ensure they remain accessible by developing truly strategic relationships.

Neil Coates, Chief Operating Officer- Enterprise and Employment, London South East Colleges

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