From education to employment

OneFile Conference | What Top Employers Look for in Apprenticeship Training Providers

What are Employers looking for Fireside chat at the OneFile user conference

Flexibility, not size, matters when outsourcing apprenticeship training – OneFile conference lifts the lid on what employers are looking for from Providers

The size of an apprenticeship training provider doesn’t matter. Achievement rates are not the be-all-and-end-all. And providers need to seriously rein it in when it comes to the marketing hard sell.

Just a few of the many insightful nuggets for training providers from an illuminating ‘fireside chat’ with some of the UK’s biggest employers at the OneFile conference in May.

What do these employers look for when working with apprenticeship training providers, and what do they try to avoid? This was the topic for a session led by OneFile founder and ambassador Susanna Lawson and featuring a panel of seasoned career and development leaders from the public and private sectors.

Sharon Blyfield OBE, head of early careers at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, Lucy Hunte, senior apprenticeships development manager for NHS England, and Ricky Leaves, manager of emerging talent, development and delivery at British Airways, joined Susanna on stage in Birmingham.

First question from Susanna; why do you outsource your training provision?

Sharon said: “We only have just over three and a half thousand employees, so it makes no sense for us to try and undertake a provision that we’re not experts in. We make soft drinks. That’s our reason for being.

“And so we took the decision that we would use the specialists, the providers who know the business, who know the industry inside out and let them focus and guide us in terms of what we needed to do for apprenticeships rather than us go in and do it really badly because it’s not our area of expertise.”

These are a mixture of colleges, universities and independent training providers (ITPs), she added. “It’s all about the flexibility they can give to us so we can focus on making soft drinks,” said Sharon. “They focus on helping us to deliver the apprenticeships.”

British Airways favours a similar approach. Ricky said: “We made a similar decision to not become an employee provider. Our core business is getting passengers from A to B as quickly and as simply as possible.”

It is a blended approach for NHS England. Lucy said: “We’ve got a mix of main employers and supporting providers. I think for us, we will utilise the external expertise but also sub-contract where possible, and where it works best for us. For us to do the breadth of standards that we need to do, it just wouldn’t be feasible (to do it all ourselves). You need to have an infrastructure and investment.”

Among the key challenges facing employer providers within the NHS, said Lucy, was making sure the clinical education related to the apprenticeship standard. Failures to do so were being picked up by Ofsted, she said. “It has been kind of a journey, but the ones that are still delivering are doing it really, really well and doing it in partnership with those external providers, to utilise their expertise.”

At a regional level, Lucy makes sure the outsourced apprenticeship training provision is up to standard by running ‘apprenticeship quality networks’. “It’s so that they’ve got that kind of safe space to share best practice,” she said.

How did the panelists employ specialist apprenticeship standards and tailor them regionally?

“I think it’s a specialism for engineering, of course, because we don’t want people tinkering on the line, right,” said Ricky. “When it comes down to other standards, like business administrator, there isn’t a specialism out there. That’s a generic standard that as long as you’ve got the robustness, anyone can deliver it. Regionally, we’ve only just started offering apprenticeships up in Manchester and Newcastle, and we have used one of our existing providers, who are delivering a great service.”

Flexibility with training providers is a need in the NHS, said Lucy. She said: “One of the biggest challenges I had was that the employer would want work-based learning. Apprenticeships are supposed to be employer led (and) we definitely find that the ITPs are a lot more flexible. And for us, the national providers have really disrupted the market.”

While regional universities were sticking to one intake a year, said Lucy, a national provider will ask, ‘how many intakes do you want?’ They have “rolling flexibility”, she said. For an employer with the scale and complexity of the NHS, the national provider is also giving that nationwide oversight, which is giving them “that edge”, she added.

The conversation then moved onto Ofsted, with Susanna asking the panel about the importance of Ofsted inspection grades in appointing a training provider.

Ricky said: “Ofsted grades is one of the factors that we look at. We try to focus more on the grade one providers, the outstanding providers. Reputation goes a very long way. Achievement rates are not necessarily a reflection on the provider itself. It comes down to other factors, such as the premises, the commitment of learners, dedication and the employer’s commitment. We shouldn’t focus in too much on the achievement rates, but mainly on the provider and what the provider has control over.”

Sharon agreed that achievement rates alone were not the best measure of a training provider. “On the achievement rates, I think that it’s unfair to look at that as part of core criteria, because I’ve had programs that we’ve piloted where the standards just haven’t worked out and therefore we’ve had learner drop-outs,” she said. “That’s impacted on the provider’s achievement rates, but it was out of the provider’s control.”

Sharon said: “I don’t look first at what the Ofsted overall rating is. I go straight to the part about the apprenticeships, that’s the piece I’m interested in. We will also look at that first and then decide whether to invite them in.”

And a cautionary note for those providers who give it the hard sell. Sharon said: “If I need a provider, I will go and look for a provider, and the likelihood is that if you have been hounding me, I’m not touching that provider.”

Lucy agreed. “I get the same email every week. Why am I going to respond after the hundredth time? And you’re not telling me anything. You’re not asking me (about what I want). You know, I’m old school. When I was in sales, you asked questions. The amount of pitches I’ve had when someone has just talked at me and then they’ll be like, so do you want to sign?”

Does size of training provider matter? asked Susanna.

Ricky said: “I think it comes down to the quality of what you are going to deliver. There are some really small ones that we use because they give more attention, they give more focus, they have the ability to spend more time with the learners themselves. I think for us, size definitely doesn’t matter.”

Sharon said: “I think fundamentally for us it comes down to the quality of provision.

There are some of them out there with really large provisions but actually in terms of that connection with the employer and their apprentices, it just isn’t there. They are just too removed because they have become so big.

“And I think for me there is a piece with the small provider where you may have people who come in from industry who are delivering some of the standards. Their industry knowledge is second to none. What they are teaching links very much to what’s actually going on into the world of work. So I think it really comes down to who the provider is and what you are looking for at that point in time.”

Had any of the panelists stopped using a training provider, and why?, asked Susanna.

The experiences of learners are telling, said Lucy. “One of the main parts of my job and certainly in the early days, was talking to the trust that would come to me and they’d have issues with a particular provider. We would get that provider in and have that discussion and wouldn’t necessarily terminate the contract there and then, but we’d agree kind of an improvement plan and what we’d expect to see.

“Basically, you know, the apprentices don’t lie and if if they’re not happy and they’re not having a good experience, then they’ll tell the employers and then the employers will tell me.”

Sharon said: “You’ve got the good, the bad and the ugly. And it’s probably the ugly ones who stop communicating with you and you are hearing from your apprentices about.

“We’ve walked away because we’ve had providers as the whole new apprenticeship levy was coming in. They were used to delivering in a certain way, the apprenticeship levy comes in so they then tweaked their model to shoehorn the other bit in. Then they just couldn’t deliver. They tried to mash two things together and weren’t delivering anything.”

The contract and tender process is important, said Ricky. “We put in three-year terms for procurement of providers. So we give every provider a three-year period. We’ve never terminated early on that agreement, but we have got to the end of the three years and we say, we are not gonna invite you to put a tender in for this program.”

The fireside chat wrapped up with a Q&A from the audience and plenty of comments about employer engagement and the need for a feedback loop between provider and employer.

Susanna thanked Sharon, Lucy and Ricky for a wide-ranging conversation that gave a rare glimpse into the things large employers consider when working with an apprenticeship training provider.

Check out the video of the full session below:

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