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Levy Investment Conundrum: Degree or L2 Apprenticeships?

Mark Corden, Head of Apprenticeships, Specsavers

Back in 2016, Specsavers Apprenticeships used to be simple. An ‘entry’ level Apprenticeship for young people in our retail stores. 

Whether you call it Foundation or Level 2 or just Apprenticeship, it was a single ‘into work’ programme that provided us with people who had a rounded set of knowledge, skills and behaviours that our employers needed from our in-store, customer-facing colleagues.  100% funded by the then Skills Funding Agency.

They’re not so simple anymore.  A mix of ‘old currency’ Frameworks and ‘new currency’ Standards exist as well as formal processes to develop new Apprenticeships all the way up to an equivalent of a Masters Degree, coupled with a new funding policy which sees larger businesses paying for Apprenticeships through the Levy.

As one of those Apprenticeship Levy paying employers, it’s been quite an interesting and challenging journey through Apprenticeship Reforms. 

2 years ago, had we been asked what we thought of our ‘entry’ level Apprenticeship programme, we’d have talked positively about it. 

Now that we find the landscape has changed, we are looking at the Apprenticeship Levy and our use of it through a different lens.

The ability to define new Apprenticeships and align this programme of development to our skills needs at higher and Degree levels is a good thing; we’re in the early stages of utilising these levels of Apprenticeships as we’re keen to build out some of our functional skills needs through a model of work-based learning. 

Today we have IT, Finance, Property and Management Apprenticeships at Level 5 through to 7 in our business. The investment of our Apprenticeship Levy in these higher and Degree Apprenticeships is an obvious strategy for us to adopt and we’ve already seen some well motivated, high calibre individuals join our business in these roles. 

They join Specsavers knowing that over the coming years they’ll gain real work experience, well-structured Apprenticeship training, and over time, see their remuneration package harmonise with the level that would be available for a qualified and experienced individual from the open market. 

Early indications are that Higher and Degree Apprenticeships are good for business and good for individuals, we’re going to put all our Apprenticeship Levy into them. 

Or maybe not. It would be easy to simply shift our investment to the development of technical and leadership skills through higher and Degree Apprenticeships, but let’s just reflect on where we started; back to those ‘entry’ level Apprenticeships in our stores.  

90% of our store Partners who have employed successful apprentices previously, state they would recommend the Apprenticeship model to their peers as it provides them with a more capable and rounded individual at the end of it. 

90% of apprentices who achieve their Apprenticeship stay in employment with Specsavers, and 65% of them go on to clinically related professional qualifications. These percentages are worth a second look. 

We could choose to invest our Apprenticeship Levy differently.  We could choose to switch from ‘low value’ Apprenticeships at Level 2, to those bright and shiny higher and Degree Apprenticeships. But our Level 2 Apprenticeships are valued by our Partners employing people new to the Optical Retail sector in our stores, we have a growing number of specific case studies where former apprentices are now Dispensing Opticians and Store Managers. 

My advice to others who are making decisions about how to choose which Apprenticeships to invest in is this, the win is to invest across the Apprenticeship spectrum and to ensure the curated content of each Apprenticeship that you offer is there because it adds value to your people.

Mark Corden, Head of Apprenticeships, Specsavers

About Mark: An FE and skills leader with commercial and employer bias. Currently Head of Apprenticeships for Specsavers, Mark’s former roles include:
Skills Development director with the Learning and Skills Council, Managing Director ‘Top 5’ Training Provider, Interim CEO Activate Enterprise, Managing Director Optima Business Consulancy Ltd, Board member Skills Funding Agency – External Technical Advisory Group, Chair of Finance and Resources – Multi Academy Trust, Chair of the Board Skills First Awards, and Non Executive Director Storgle.

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