At the Peter Jones Foundation, we welcome the government's drive to boost both the quality and quantity of apprenticeships, and thus the productivity of the workforce, as outlined in George Osborne's productivity plan. But there are factors to be considered.
The role of businesses in creating 3m worthwhile apprenticeship starts by 2020 is, of course, integral and their apprehensions must be acknowledged and addressed. Bureaucracy surrounding the levy on large employers is a widespread concern that needs alleviating, and so too are worries about the role of SMEs and the full implications of the cost.
Furthermore, the exact extent of businesses' future input in the design and delivery of apprenticeships, which is essential if they are to get back more than they put in, as well as that of colleges and training providers, is lacking clarity – and so we eagerly await further details on sector restructuring.
What is clear is that if increased numbers of apprenticeships are going to directly improve UK productivity, the relationship between industry and educators has to be a close, effective collaboration.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), in partnership with Pearson, recently published survey results reporting that demand for more people with higher-level skills is expected to be strong in central growth areas such as construction (+73%), manufacturing (+69%) and engineering, science and hi-tech (+52%).
The study also found that a majority of businesses are concerned about school leavers' competencies in areas including business and customer awareness (66%) and self-management (61%). Interestingly, the most important factors for those recruiting school and college leavers are attitudes (85%) and aptitudes (58%), with both considered far more valuable than formal qualifications.
This latter statistic is supported by professional services firm Ernst & Young's decision to gauge the quality of prospective employees using online tests, with qualifications unavailable to recruiters until the final round of interviews.
This general trend of apparent dissatisfaction with the ability of those entering the workforce is a long-running one that confirms the need for employers to play a real part in improving the skills landscape on a large scale.
Last month, Dr Ann Limb CBE wrote about the relationship between Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and their FE colleges and training providers. She explained that what is needed is the 'right kind' of employer engagement, as opposed to 'crude employer intervention based solely on meeting short-term business needs'; we back this logic.
If we are to put employers in the skills 'driving seat' – and get the best from doing so – we need to see a sustained and genuinely productive dialogue between and across the sectors.
The Peter Jones Foundation specialises in working closely with industry leaders to prepare students for the specific demands of the working world. As part of the Trailblazers initiative, we have contributed to the development of a Business Administration framework, led by our Cornerstone Patron Grant Thornton, and we are set to collaborate with Nielsen UK on an Innovation and Growth framework.
However, our work with businesses in tackling the skills shortage and bridging the gap between education and industry extends far beyond apprenticeships, and has proved hugely successful in the classroom.
Having designed BTEC level 2 and 3 courses in enterprise and entrepreneurship – as well as our level 3 and 5 apprenticeships – we run a network of Peter Jones Enterprise Academies operating in FE colleges across the country. Our courses focus on providing practical business experience and developing vital assets such as confidence, resilience and communication skills.
As well as informing the subject matter of the courses we deliver, our close relationship with industry leaders has enabled us to introduce experts into the classroom – through masterclasses, workshops and mentoring sessions. Our students also take part in national challenges, designed in partnership with businesses, to further bolster their skill sets.
A great many graduates from the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy have gone on to forge successful careers both as employees ('intrapreneurs') with top companies and as entrepreneurs creating jobs across a range of industries.
From our experience, it is clear that if we are to prepare the next generation to help improve UK productivity, a thorough and mutual understanding between industry and educators must be reached, and a close dialogue upheld. It is also crucial to protect and build upon the vital role of FE classroom-based learning. FE has the flexibility to be a useful and resourceful partner for businesses to collaborate with to ensure that the skills companies need are reflected in the modern workforce.