The low volume of apprenticeships (down by 26% compared to 12 months ago) and the increasing gap between the government’s three million target and current levels is concerning for those involved in education and learning provision. So, what’s been going on and where’s it all heading?

Operationally, the apprenticeship levy is, in my experience working with levy payers and being a trustee of a levy-paying organisation, proving challenging to implement for many on the apprenticeship frontline. But there are also other forces in play, which are contributing to a slow take-up by the levy-payers.

Managing capacity

The management of the levy more often than not falls within the remit of an HR team: a team not only struggling to find the capacity to develop their own knowledge of apprenticeships, but also required to manage the co-ordinated use of a significant pot of money. Additional resource or time needs to be budgeted to accommodate this, particularly in these early, formative days. If policy had allowed for a proportion of the levy to be made available to employers to improve internal management of the levy, then the ability of HR teams to respond earlier could have improved.

A different approach to decision-making

In some cases, the levy is stymying the capacity of those responsible for recruitment - a head teacher, for example - to opt to recruit an apprentice. In the new landscape, this type of decision requires a degree of discussion with whoever controls the central levy fund, either in terms of decision-making, or the processes behind the apprenticeship service. This would not have been the case in the past. In the short term, it’s a frustration and creating a blockage.

Creating an internal market

Unless the employer has an existing strategy to utilise apprenticeships within the organisation, there is a need to build an internal market, where leaders and managers are not only made aware of the levy and the detail associated with employing apprentices but also the detail of how to engage with them. Make no mistake, this is a major change initiative and whilst a strategic approach in important, I also ask employers to consider the ways in which they can nudge the decision to use apprenticeships into the day to day norm. The simple question, when a vacancy arises, have we considered if an apprenticeship is suitable for this role? Where an interviewee doesn’t quite meet the mark, have we got the capacity to develop them into the role? In some cases it will be suitable, in others not but at least managers have an easy way to build this into their thinking. Developing interest takes time, investment and a strong will to make it work, particularly where the default position is to recruit at graduate level.

Return on (apprenticeship) investment

Employers are still struggling to get the best out of apprenticeships, which can add significant value, introduce fresh thinking and new ideas, and secure future workforce skills. Securing a return on apprenticeship investment requires the capacity to provide good mentoring and investment by an employer together with the time to consider how best to manage an apprentice’s training time, without it impacting on the workloads of other team members. This is not such an issue if an employer is recruiting an apprentice to boost existing headcount, but in these uncertain economic times, when workforces are under the microscope, it isn’t necessarily how large organisations are best utilising their apprentice talent.

Finding apprenticeship training providers

It is not unusual for a levy payer to have procured a framework of suitable apprenticeship providers. But this is a resource hungry, time-consuming process and as we head towards the apprenticeship service payments for end-point assessment going directly to the requisite assessment organisations, as opposed to via the training provider, the same is likely to recur next year. And while these procurement processes are being undertaken, any apprenticeship activity has more or less stopped. For those who have not undertaken such an exercise, the question of how to source high quality apprenticeship provision remains important but is further down the list than establishing internal interest in the first instance.

Time for standards

It is acknowledged by the Institute for Apprenticeships that the process for developing and approving apprenticeships is too slow. If we are to make significant headway into moving from frameworks to standards this has to be a priority. While the frameworks will remain for some time to come, the standards are broadly, easier to understand and engage with from an employer’s perspective. However, in the main good apprenticeship providers are recognising the value of the standards and making headway to move provision from frameworks to standards where they exist. It is difficult for employers new to apprenticeships to get to grips with some of the basics, having to explain the differences between frameworks and standards isn’t something they have time for.

Employer providers

New employer providers are, on the one hand having to understand how to get best value from the levy as an employer, while on the other, creating an apprenticeship training provision. The key to success in my view is for employer providers to divorce the two in their thinking, in the early stages. One is a function of HR (or similar); the other is a supplier of internal services to them. While I appreciate it isn’t always as neat as this, establishing boundaries around the relationships and processes for engagement can only pay dividends in the long run.

At this stage, there’s no reason to panic over the low volume of apprenticeships. The level of exposure of apprenticeships to large businesses as a result of the levy is encouraging and will continue to grow. I do believe strongly that we need to recognise that change is so much more than the levy itself if we are to avoid employers walking away and putting this in the ‘too hard’ box.

Louise Doyle, Director, MESMA

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