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The moment we have been waiting for has arrived and the levy is now a fact not merely a policy idea. As a hypothecated tax (sort of) the levy must help fund the (hopefully) growing needs of employers for apprentices of all shapes and sizes. Colleges and private training providers have been knocking on employers’ doors trying to get the attention of the training buyer to switch employees from time management courses and the like to apprenticeships in business administration or from professional courses in leadership and management to suitable apprenticeship alternatives. Those employers who are to pay the levy are beginning to get their heads around the concept. But they represent just 2% of the workforce. What of the other 98%? What should Colleges and training providers do for these folk?

This is where the College sector in particular needs to do three things at once. The first is to prioritise apprenticeships. This may seem obvious and many college leadership teams may well believe they have and are. But is that really true? Given the size of opportunity, funding available, competitive marketplace etc etc are Colleges really driving apprenticeships throughout the organisation and particularly with their curriculum teams? Too often in too many Colleges apprenticeships and work-based learning are the Cinderella part of the curriculum offer. Indeed I attended a course recently at which the work-based learning Head I sat next to at dinner was complaining bitterly at the lack of respect she felt her and her colleagues received from the College leadership team.

Second what strategy for selling apprenticeships are you adopting? Given the vast majority of employers are SMEs how are you going to reach them and what are you going to do once you’ve reached them? This is where I think a cluster based supply chain strategy may well work in some sectors. Basically seek out the cluster of large employers in a sector. Get them together. Sell them the idea of being strategic about how they spend their levy and get them to bring their supply chains to the party. This might mean setting up a Group Training Agency for example which the College facilitates. It might mean some pooling of facilities and resources. It should certainly mean the co-production of what it is the College is to deliver.

Third how are you going to deliver? By that I mean are you going to create a specialist apprenticeship operation with trainers, assessors and teachers dedicated to the delivery to apprentices there or will you keep it in house to be delivered by curriculum teams. If the latter, do those curriculum teams see apprenticeship delivery as being as important as delivery to their full time classroom based learners? If not what is your strategy to overcome this?

For the levy to be translatable into more and better apprentices the supply side (ie College and training providers) need to step up to the challenge. Vertically integrated leadership structures in Colleges often lead to College middle managers and operations Directors focusing on the ‘bread and butter’ of 16-18 classroom based delivery. For many just managing the changes here, the burden of English and maths delivery, the pastoral needs of the student body etc etc is exhausting enough. Yet the government believe apprenticeships are better options for young people who want to go into a vocational career. The productivity statistics seem to indicate a far higher return on investment from apprenticeship spend than from classroom based spending. Result is that many College leadership teams have bolted on increased apprenticeship delivery loads without thinking about the management and leadership aspects of these demands.

If the Institute for Fiscal Studies is to be believed, most of the money raised by the apprenticeship levy won’t be spent on apprenticeships. If this comes to pass it would mean we have wasted a golden opportunity to transform the economy – at least in terms of raising the skills element of productivity. To make sure the IFS report proves a false harbinger of doom, Colleges and others need to prioritise everything to do with apprenticeships; the Government needs to follow through on its commitment to laud them as equal to any academic pathway, and employers need to start hiring apprentices in record numbers.

Nick Isles, CEO, Corporate Agenda Advice Consultancy

@nicisles

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