A hugely important development for the Apprenticeship market has hit the mainstream news recently after flying under the radar for a week.

Cambridge University has been approved to deliver apprenticeships and, for now, intend to pitch this at the post graduate level for levy paying firms in and around their location. It is great news for businesses and their staff that can utilise this resource, but mixed news for competitor providers.

Ask yourself this; if you had decided to undertake a degree or postgrad apprenticeship, which provider name would you like to have on your CV? Cambridge University - a respected global bastion of education, or Apprentices4U based in your local town?

However, for the time being, all is still to play for in the world of apprenticeship delivery. The entry of a world-renowned University to the apprenticeship space, along with a flood of c. 300 other new providers, carries both threats and opportunities. For existing apprenticeship providers, some of which have been operating in the space for many years prior to the introduction of the levy - what does this mean and how can businesses use it to their advantage?

Threats

The number of starts has not yet picked up, especially in the SME market. Businesses need to consider what the impact of this will be when the existing customer pool is under threat, not just the sales activity to gain new customers.

There is now greater competition in the delivery of apprenticeships than there has ever been. Businesses need to  position themselves to rise above others in a crowded market. In a crowded market place differentiation is key, and this starts by defining a USP, and making this a clear proposition.

Another important consideration is whether selling on quality and track record is viable. Is this a great concern for customers, or are long-standing providers just hoping this will bear fruit in the long term?

Ofsted has confirmed that they have little hope of assessing all the new providers quickly enough. Will this give your potential customers a bad experience of apprenticeships overall before they are even approached, if inexperienced providers are giving a bad impressions of private sector providers.

Is this now a race to the bottom in terms of pricing? It is important that businesses assess their finances, and decide whether they can afford to run as lean as some of the competition will attempt to or instead, focus on delivering high quality programmes for a reasonable price.

Opportunities

With the addition of an Oxbridge University to the provider list, the profile of apprenticeships has risen exponentially. Businesses need to be prepared to gain leverage from this development with their target customers.

Existing providers with a non-levy allocation are ahead of the game as the new provider entrants are stuck chasing levy payers, which is a really tough market. There are some huge and recognisable brands out there now and existing providers are fortunate enough not to have to compete with them…. Yet!

The sales process has changed fundamentally for the apprenticeship market and must clearly target candidates themselves rather than just employers. This means a business’s brand is more important than ever before. In particular, specialist providers have a chance to really shine and by investing in the correct marketing to come out on top.

There is also help available to finance this drive towards capturing more customers while retaining those businesses already have. Scaling up can happen rapidly as long as the funds are there to spend on growth, all while retaining the level of quality that has enabled businesses to keep pace in this market for a number of years.

The costs associated with upgrading marketing, sales and staffing are high but there is no getting around these fundamentals for growth and ultimately, with a spotlight on the skills gap only looking to increase in the coming years, the return on investment is there for those that invest now.

In a crowded provider world, businesses now need to grow quickly to capture the market share. They need to be sustainable, whatever their aspirations. The clock is ticking on this while SME take up remains low and a significant number of levy payers are still dormant.

Phillip Speed, Education Finance Specialist, Nucleus Commercial Finance

About Nucleus: Nucleus Commercial Finance provides alternative finance for businesses. The experienced team takes a solutions-based approach to structure finance deals that fit each individual business. This tailored and transparent approach combines the flexibility of an alternative lender with the stability and product range of bank finance, spanning overdrafts,  cash flow finance, invoice finance, property finance, asset funding and construction finance. Click here for more details.

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