A lack of understanding about the new apprenticeship reforms is creating unnecessary barriers to entry for many employers, but especially SMEs.

Whether it’s confusion over the mechanics of the apprenticeship levy, the 20% off-the-job for studying or worries about how you even begin to mentor an apprentice, many employers still regard the apprentice solution as second best to graduate recruitment.

There is still a misunderstanding that apprenticeships are low-skilled work schemes that are out of line with the needs of today’s employers.

However, the launch of the Apprenticeship Standard in 2016 has dramatically changed the apprenticeship landscape.

Out are the old-style apprentice frameworks and in are new employer-designed standards that set the bar for more than 600 job specific roles, compared to just 250 apprenticeship frameworks under the old system.

Covering a wide range of industries, the philosophy of the new apprenticeship standards aim to combine real skills, knowledge and behaviour to create a future-fit workforce.

Rather than just tracking a candidate’s progress, there is now new emphasis on consistent mentoring, monitoring and management throughout the apprenticeship duration, while government approved Training Providers, such as Intequal in the digital sector, help employers with the quality, delivery and financial management of the apprenticeship.

Training Providers work with employers to make sure they have the right apprenticeship standard for their organisations.

They will ensure the apprentice continues to meet all the required standards and passes all their technical qualifications, gains the right functional skills as well as completing a portfolio of work for their end point assessment (EPA), assessed by an independent EPA organisation.

High Quality Calibre of Candidates

High university fees mean many young people are now reluctant to take on the large debt accumulated from a traditional degree path. Instead, they are realising the benefits of learning their skills at the front line of a live work environment, with a salary, while gaining the relevant qualifications to progress in their chosen career path. 

The result is high quality, industry-led apprenticeships that are attracting a new calibre of candidates. This noticeable increase in good quality candidates, means employers of all shapes and sizes from SMEs to multinationals including Microsoft are benefitting from apprentices at entry level.

At Intequal, our experience suggests it is not only businesses in urban areas that are advancing their workforce through the apprenticeship programme.

Apprenticeships in rural areas are also on the increase as smaller firms can now take on candidates at 16-18 years, while the government funds 90% of their training.

While many employers are still wary of taking that final step to invest in the programme, those that do are finding the end result is more transformational than just a transactional one.

According to government figures, employers who have an established apprenticeship programme reported a 76% increase in productivity, while 75% said that apprenticeships had improved the quality of their product or service.

So, as an SME where do you begin?

The first step is to understand how your apprenticeship will be funded. A company with a payroll bill above £3million a year must pay a 0.5 per cent apprenticeship levy, which is then ring-fenced in a ‘Levy Pot’ to spend on apprentices. This is also known as the Apprenticeship Service Account (ASA).

If your payroll bill is less than £3million, you do not have to pay the levy. Non-levy paying employers will share the cost of training and assessing their apprentices with government - this is called ‘co-investment’. You pay 10% towards to the cost of apprenticeship training and the government will pay the rest (90%), up to the funding band maximum. You could also be eligible for extra funding depending on both your and your apprentice’s circumstances.

In return for government apprenticeship funding, all employers must agree to pay the candidate a salary, provide a fixed term contract to cover the duration of the apprenticeship and supply a mentor in the workplace to help with onsite training.

Transfer of Funds

Last week Philip Hammond announced a package of reforms to ensure the Apprenticeship Levy provides more people with the skills they need to succeed, including increasing the transfer of funds limit from 10% to 25%.

Unless you are receiving a transfer of funds from a levy paying employer, you won’t be able to use the apprenticeship service to pay for apprenticeship training and assessment until at least mid-2019. 

Instead, you’ll need to agree a payment schedule with the provider and pay them directly for the training. The provider must prove that you have paid your contributions as a condition of government paying its contribution.

The next step for employers is to choose a training provider.

This is paramount to ensure the quality and success of your apprentice, which is why at Intequal we’ve developed the Pathway Planner programme where our trainers and planners will assist employers every step of the way.

We can help businesses recruit an apprentice; whether it is advertising the vacancy through the national apprenticeship service, drawing up a short list of candidates or getting people in for interview.

Once the candidate is recruited and training has started, we will be responsible for monitoring the progress of the learner month-by-month to ensure the Standard is being met.

Sometimes, a line manager and the senior manager will have different visions of the nature of work an apprentice will be doing. It can sometimes be a case of non-communication in an organisation or the company’s circumstances may have changed.

Employers need support from start to finish, so part of the training provider’s role is showing them what on-the-job skills the learners need and how to mentor them according to the apprenticeship standard.

20% off-the-job training

Typically, apprenticeships last 12-18 months, allowing 20% a week for off-the-job training. For many employers, worries about time lost travelling to and from college plus the extra costs incurred for day release travel etc. can be a major deterrent.

However, at Intequal our digital sector training can now be delivered on-site with online, interactive, instructor-led tutorials and Skype for Business, which can be scheduled around projects and workload.

Another benefit is that employers get instant outcomes from online exams; helping them to evaluate what projects and work the apprentice can do next.

End Point Assessment

At the end of the apprenticeship, candidates must then pass their EPA.

These assessments are carried out by independent EPA organisations and can range in approach, from set exams, to synoptic assessments and a final interview.

Intequal was one of the first training providers in the digital sector to have their apprentices tested under the new standards for technical sales. The EPA was carried out by the British Computer Society and the apprentice became one of the first to achieve the mark of distinction.

We believe success like this, can only be achieved by high quality monitoring and a consistency by training providers to ensure that neither employer, nor apprentice, falls behind the apprenticeship standards pathway.

While the apprenticeship reforms are still in their infancy, the ethos of the new standards are already transforming entry-level apprentices into highly trained and valued employees.

Businesses that employ apprentices find it is the most cost-effective way to grow their business, expand skills in their organisation and increase employee retention.

While 92% of employers who employ apprentices believe apprenticeships lead to a more motivated and satisfied workforce.

The only question is - do you as an employer want to be part of it?

Rod Harris, Operations Director, Intequal

About Intequal: A Microsoft Apprenticeship Programme Provider delivering framework apprenticeships since October 2013 and new standards since March 2016. The senior management team has over 40 years’ experience in managing employer-led apprenticeships in various organisations.

Intequal has delivered over 400 framework apprenticeships for 160 employers with a completion rate of 89.5%. Its repeat business with employers is at 43% and 86% of its clients are SMEs.

Intequal programmes have been developed using input and feedback from customers. Intequal has a cutting edge delivery model via online, instructor-led and or blended classroom sessions giving countrywide reach. This minimises workplace disruption for both the employer and apprentice. All apprentices are supported throughout their apprenticeship to ensure successful completion.

Intequal apprenticeships are part of a wider Microsoft programme to promote IT and digital apprenticeships across the UK. Intequal is a Microsoft Learning Partner (Silver) and CompTIA Partner, demonstrating its technical capabilities, strengths and quality of delivery.

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