James Wheale, Head of Innovation, Skills for Logistics

As an end-point assessor our main focus is apprenticeships.

The work we do is predicated on the advice and regulations laid out by the government. In many respects, these new apprenticeship standards, the levy, the shift in definitions, expectations and opportunities resemble one large experiment.

We, like many other in the education sector, are excited by the potential and are starting to see good numbers of apprentices go through end-point assessment.

We are also seeing businesses move past perceiving the Levy as merely an additional tax. Critically in our sector, logistics, we finally have a vocational training opportunity that could help resolve the skills crisis.

If you were not already aware, Large Goods Vehicles (LGV) drivers alone have an average age of 53 in the UK and, depending on who you listen to, hundreds of thousands of new recruits are needed to address shortages by 2024.

However, there are real issues affecting the viability of this experiment. Businesses are opting for higher level apprenticeships, which is resulting in an overspend of the apprenticeship budget. I’m sure there are many reasons contributing to this situation but here is what we’ve observed in our sector.

Firstly, there is a skills shortage in the commercial side of planning and coordinating apprenticeships, especially in Levy literate skills. The endemic issues in recruiting and retaining talent in logistics have not gone away simply because the Levy came along.

As such, there are still worryingly poor retention levels – some businesses we’ve spoken with lose as much as 60% of new recruits, in the first year, for level 2 standards. Just think of the administration costs.

This impacts businesses, training providers and end-point assessors. For a Levy paying employer who is already struggling with retention, higher level apprenticeships are very tempting.

Why? For a start, upskilling existing staff avoids recruitment costs and admin. Even if a new recruit, retention isn’t nearly the same challenge amongst higher level apprenticeships. With less administration, less additional costs like recruitment, you can spend your Levy efficiently on existing staff who will likely complete the apprenticeship with little fuss. For an overstretched L+D department attempting to figure out how not to lose their Levy contribution, this approach is the easiest route.

Secondly, L+D budgets for Levy paying employers have largely migrated to apprenticeships. There is much interest in customising training or end-point assessment to mimic other professional pathways that would typically be privately funded by a company.

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As some standards are more open to interpretation than others (especially earlier ones) they can be stretched to fit vocational training beyond their remit.

Thirdly, for the best distribution of Levy spend, a company would need perfect understanding of its skills requirements. This is a dark art. Additionally, universities, colleges and training providers are locked into a battle to convince businesses of their value, of which levels, relevant and what best practice looks like.

With each training provider and end-point assessor comes a unique approach, often different software, paperwork and processes to manage. Again, this increases administration overheads, complicating implementation and rendering large volume, poor retention apprenticeships less desirable.

We do believe in the Levy

We can see how it could transform our sector and provide meaningful opportunities for potentially millions of logistics workers, especially in a post Brexit Britain.

We feel strongly that businesses need more support to plan and implement their Levy spend, potentially even drawing upon the Levy funds to ensure these skills are present in the business.

We also feel the government needs to quickly resolve the tension between lower level and high-level apprenticeship training provision. Universities and colleges need to work together to provide training, not compete for the same resources.

Experimentation is about iteration, about peer review, about honesty of findings. Responding to the recent Public Accounts Committee report into apprenticeship reforms, the Skills Minister Anne Milton was quoted as saying, ‘there is still work to be done, but we won’t sacrifice quality for quantity.’

The issue here is that, in our sector at least, we desperately need both. Not prioritising quantity immediately disincentivises lower tier apprenticeships.

James Wheale, Head of Innovation, Skills for Logistics

About James: A creative technologist who specialises in naturalising bleeding edge technology into commercial and educational environments, at Skills for Logistics, a leading not-for-profit that supports the logistics sector through research, technology, attraction and apprentice end-point assessment. 

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