Ben Hansford, MD - Apprenticeships, Firebrand

The first week of February was #NationalApprenticeshipWeek in England, and 2-6 Mar in Scotland #ScotAppWeek20 - but you may be surprised to hear that, as the MD of an #Apprenticeships department at Firebrand training, I believe the week was a wasted opportunity.

A quick Google News search of “National Apprenticeship Week 2020” mainly showcases the campaigns run by the Department of Education’s apprenticeship division to raise awareness of apprenticeships among employers and young people. For example, they partnered with Mumsnet to generate some shocking research about parents’ views on apprenticeships - 63% were concerned their child would be stuck doing menial tasks if they chose to do an apprenticeship and over one-third think apprenticeships just apply to manual trades. Don’t get me wrong - I think the work being done by the department to change dated preconceptions around apprenticeships is invaluable. It’s vital that attitudes change so that apprenticeships are more often seen as a viable alternative to a university degree.

Crucially, a very important part of the story was missed out of the narrative during the week - namely, the challenges still faced by employers when it comes to apprenticeships. There were a number of great events hosted by some wonderfully engaged employers and providers, but sometimes it feels like we are always “preaching to the choir” and echoing positive messages to those in the FE sector that have already bought into apprenticeships.

The messages that do make it out into the wider landscape then tend to be negative and lack positive education for those not in the know - for example the Financial Times’s exposé into employment agencies who are exploiting a loophole in the apprenticeship levy to reduce their overheads.

In this article I want to talk through some of the macro-trends that apprenticeships could solve if they were properly taken advantage of by businesses, before talking through the challenges organisations are facing today and how the sector should be working to solve these challenges.

My argument is that the focus of National Apprenticeship Week - and all efforts to promote apprenticeships - needs to shift to ensure that education and support for businesses is also a key part of the agenda. The UK is currently in a period of flux and we must ensure that we aren’t prepping a generation of workers for a workforce that is wholly unprepared for their entry.

Apprenticeships are really, really important

Organisations will have heard from numerous sources (the government, the media and training organisations at least) that apprenticeships are important. And they really are. Not just because they are an effective way to train the next generation of workers, but also because they have an important role to play in solving the productivity crisis and plugging the digital skills gap.

UK productivity is currently 30% behind the US and 10% to 15% behind Germany. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that many workers, especially those outside of London, lack certain skills needed in the modern age. This productivity issue is linked to the so-called digital skills gap which refers to the fact that 88% of UK organisations are facing a shortage of digital skills, with this already hampering some firms’ ability to compete globally.

Most businesses still rely on universities to provide them with a steady stream of highly skilled tech talent, but this pool is small and inexperienced in real world applications of their digital skills, so many organisations are left short. This has an impact on company growth, customer experience and ultimately, the UK economy.

Apprenticeships have a huge part to play in solving these critical macro-issues. Not only will they help train a new workforce in key digital skills but they can also help upskill the existing workforce; current technical staff can be empowered to do more and people in completely different departments can even be retrained to help them make a rewarding move into one of the most important segments of the modern workplace.

We can’t ignore the challenges faced by businesses

There is a lot to gain if apprenticeships are fully embraced by businesses, however, the challenges associated with implementing an apprenticeship training plan must not be ignored. Many organisations feel they don’t have enough time and resource to support apprenticeships effectively.

Additionally, dated ideas around what apprenticeships are and what they can deliver means that many firms associate them with preconceived perceptions of what an apprentice is. For employees, this stigma means that some don’t see the value in undertaking an apprenticeship as an upskilling activity, even though it could propel them into a more rewarding and well-paid role.

In my view, the main requirements to solving these challenges are; stringent education for businesses around the value of apprenticeships and how to best implement them within the organisation, more collaboration in the sector to share best practice, and, ultimately, a change in mindset that places apprenticeships alongside graduate schemes, internships and existing training methods.

Ignorance isn’t an excuse, but there must be more collaboration

Many organisations are pleading ignorance when it comes to apprenticeships, which is resulting in some misusing the levy (for example by investing thousands of pounds into second or third degrees for an individual rather than upskilling a group of people with, for example, new cybersecurity skills) and some not using it at all.

Ignorance isn’t an excuse but in these businesses’ defence, it can be a confusing sector if you don’t have access to advice, especially advice from other organisations who can teach you how to best implement an apprenticeship strategy.

One of the most important steps in educating the UK’s business population on how to use apprenticeships most effectively is the need for an urgent change in mindset which must be triggered by the government and the training bodies that understand apprenticeships the best.

More campaigns need to be initiated that educate businesses on how to get started implementing an apprenticeship strategy into the workplace and these campaigns must also, if possible, encourage collaboration between organisations in order to establish best practices.

For example, during National Apprenticeship Week, Firebrand held a workshop attended by organisations, apprentices and training bodies that worked through common challenges associated with delivering digital apprenticeships, such as End Point Assessments and what to do when things go wrong.

Education around how to best use the apprenticeship levy is one of the more urgent requirements. It is complicated, but many organisations are using this as an excuse to put off bringing apprenticeships and apprenticeship training into the workforce, when really a lack of understanding is to blame. Ultimately, it’s not perfect, but it’s still money that organisations should be working together to best make use of because it can significantly level-up a businesses’ talent, helping it to better compete in the modern world.

The value of apprenticeships

Arguably the most important thing that needs to happen is a change in mindset which will, in part, come with more education around the value of apprenticeships. Those undertaking apprenticeship training can be any age and should be considered the same as anyone else upskilling within the organisation. Apprenticeships and apprenticeship training should be committed to the same as any other workforce plan - if a business is taking on graduates or interns, but feels they don’t have the time or resource to embrace apprenticeships, there is something very wrong going on there.

Ultimately, apprenticeships (especially digital apprenticeships) should be considered as a huge return on investment for organisations. Upskilling an existing employee can be a huge cost save versus struggling to find, and then paying the high market rate, for a university educated software developer every time. This, along with bringing in new apprentices to help train the next generation of technical workers, should be a no brainer for businesses, and National Apprenticeship Week and similar campaigns should be focused on educating organisations on how to do this right. This isn’t just important for individual firms - a better country-wide understanding of apprenticeships could help solve the productivity crisis and the digital skills gap, which would have a significant impact on the whole economy.

Apprenticeship week is a great start. But we need an all year round, sustained effort to break down the deep rooted stigmas still associated with apprenticeships and more education and collaboration to ensure that the business sector is working together to make the most out of apprenticeships.

Ben Hansford, MD, Firebrand

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