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Quality in apprenticeships – Stories from across the pond

It’s National Apprenticeship Week in America – a celebration of all things apprenticeships. So what better time to host the 4th Annual Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum? 

In June 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to increase the number of US apprenticeships to 5 million by 2022. To reach this ambitious target, the US has been working with the UK to drive the apprenticeship movement across America.  

Part of this collaboration is the Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum. Members from across the pond meet every year to learn from each other and develop a well-structured American apprenticeship system.  

Before the Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum was founded, there was no clear definition of what could be called an apprenticeship. But since the Forum was founded, American apprenticeships have been completely transformed – but they still need a little help from their UK partners.  

The 4th Annual Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum was hosted in Washington DC this week. As a member of the Forum, I (Susanna Lawson, CEO of OneFile), attended the event and chaired the morning session at the ‘Assuring Quality in Apprenticeships: A Transatlantic Dialogue’ event on Tuesday 13th November.  

I was joined on stage by Simon Ashworth, chief policy officer at AELP, Mardy Leathers, director, Department of Economic Development in Missouri, Sarah Watts-Rynard the CEO of Polytechnics Canada and John Ladd, administrator for the Office of Apprenticeships at the US Office of Labor. 

Starting the discussion with an overview of standardisation in each country present – the UK, US and Canada, Simon Ashworth then went on to explain the UK’s transition from broad apprenticeship frameworks to the new standards. The standards are developed by employers, supported by independent training providers and assessment organisations, and overseen by the Institute of Apprenticeships. It’s a real collaboration.  

The States are transitioning too – from registered apprenticeships to employer-led, industry-recognised apprenticeships. John explained that America has always struggled to standardise training – especially in the apprenticeship space. They don’t have the infrastructure of approved bodies, so they’re looking towards the UK to follow their trailblazer groups. 

Sarah explained that in Canada, the provinces regulate their own apprenticeships, but work with employers too. The regulatory bodies get together at a national level to discuss 66 red seal trades that are the same across the country. They then work with providers and employers every 5 years to create a regulated assessment for each apprenticeship.  

I then asked the group what they thought about employers having the power to change occupational standards. Mardy said that American apprenticeships need to be flexible to employers. “As the workforce shifts and technology changes, we need to be flexible but still maintain quality. We have to set parameters, and then work with employers to build standards within these.” John agreed, saying that apprenticeships need to be standardised, but also portable.  

Sarah said that they had a similar situation in Canada. 90% of businesses have less than 100 employees and don’t have HR onsite, so it can be a challenge to train people. Canadian apprentices carry a log book to record their skills – then employers can work together to build competencies around an occupational area. The log books also give apprentices portability – which is really important.  

The next set of questions was all about money. Simon spoke about the apprenticeship levy – the UK’s answer to apprenticeship funding. The levy generates £3 billion a year, but it’s still subsidised by the government, so it comes with a huge book of rules and regulations – some of which drive quality.  

In the States, employers are still in charge of hiring, funding and training apprentices – but when it comes to quality, they’re still working on a third-party system to roll out.  

The final question was an important one; ‘What’s going well and what’s been your biggest challenge?’ Simon was first up again. What’s going well in the UK is how apprenticeships are regulated. “Ofsted is a very powerful organisation with a grading system. If providers don’t meet the quality standard, they get struck off and can’t deliver apprenticeships anymore.” What’s a challenge in the UK is end-point assessment organisations. They’re new to the sector and there are already many different organisations, so making sure they’re all equally responsible for quality standards is a challenge.  

In the US, expansion is their biggest challenge. Mardy explained that in Missouri, they’re working with employers and education providers to scale-up apprenticeships in a controlled environment. John said the same; “Employers are really investing in the system, which is great. The challenge is to expand and develop some kind of end-point assessment.” 

Canada’s challenge is making sure technical training is up to scratch. Sarah explained that it’s an imperfect system. Apprentices have to complete a multiple-choice exam to be proven competent in a practical skill. That’s a weakness so we need to introduce more ‘show me’ exams.  

It was now time for questions from the floor. Sarah answered the first question; ‘How do you balance funding and flexibility?’. She spoke about a research project that’s been completed in Canada that looked into apprenticeship training, and it found that every single organisation that hired an apprentice was getting return on investment. This is the answer to funding and flexibility. “We need to tell employers that apprenticeships aren’t just good for individuals – they’re not a public service – they’re good for business too.” 

The final question was crucial; ‘Apprenticeships will be impacted by technology. How can standards keep up with this advancement?’ This time, the UK and US took to the mic. Simon explained that the UK standards are timebound, so they have to be updated every 3 years. Technology is also used at every stage of the apprenticeship journey in the UK – from accessing funds to delivering training.  

The US needs to catch up. John explained that although their standards are still quite new, they’ll have to update them to maintain their competitive advantage. It’s something they need to change to keep up with the needs of the employers. It’s another example of the US looking to the UK for guidance, so it was a fitting end to the panel.  

This event was all about sharing knowledge and making progress, and that’s exactly what was happening right before our eyes.  

Happy 4th birthday Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum! 

Susanna Lawson, CEO of OneFile 

About OneFileSupporting over 600,000 users worldwide, OneFile is the UK’s leading eportfolio for learning and development – and winner of the 2017 Queen’s Award for Innovation. But we do more than sell software. We believe people deserve to reach their full potential – that’s why we’ve made it our mission to shape the futures of 1 million people by 2020. 

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