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Apprenticeships are seen as a key way for the UK to address a growing and chronic skills shortage by combining practical on-the-job skills training with off-the-job learning. The Employer Skills Survey 2019, which was published in November 2020, showed 5% of employers reporting that they had skill-shortage vacancies, as well as 13% of employers acknowledging that they had skills gaps among their workforce.
Employer engagement with apprenticeships has seen an uptick since 2014 with medium and large enterprises “much more likely to report that they currently offer apprenticeships in 2019”. Indeed, more than 800,000 funded apprentices participated on an apprenticeship in the 2017 to 2018 academic year and this number continues to rise.
The government announced its Plan for Jobs 2020 in July of that year as a direct response to the harm to the UK economy caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Within this policy paper a £1.6bn war chest was announced for boosting work search, skills and apprenticeships, with the aim of getting the economy back on its feet.
The support package included a new payment to English employers for each new apprentice they hire. This amounted to £2,000 for each apprentice under the age of 25, and £1,500 for each apprentice aged 25 and over between August 1 2020 to January 31 2021.
A briefing paper released by the House of Commons Library explained that “training providers have been encouraged to deliver training to apprentices remotely and via e-learning as far as practicable”. It added: “Providers can have face-to-face contact with older apprentices, but have been asked to prioritise those aged 16-19. If they can’t deliver training, then the provider can put in place a break in learning. Previously only the learner could initiate such a break.”
A commitment to 3 million new apprenticeship starts by 2020 was not fulfilled by the government, in no small part due to the pandemic. In 2019/20, there were 322,500 apprenticeship starts, 70,900 less than in 2018/19.
Introduced in April 2017, the aim of the Apprenticeship Levy is to improve funding for the apprenticeship sector, creating crucial investment to address the skills gap head on and providing a boost to the further education (FE) sector as a result. The Apprenticeship Levy is a tax on both private and public sector UK employers, with annual earnings of £3m or more. These businesses are liable to pay 0.5% of those earning for this new tax.
The fund has been highlighted by government as being critical to encouraging and enabling more businesses to hire apprentices. As inexperienced but well-educated workers, apprentices have the potential to add value to a business, after on the job training. However, apprentices continue to study at college while working, meaning they are not available for the full amount of hours as a regular employee.
The new funding system was met with scepticism after it emerged that 364,000 apprenticeship starts were recorded in the 12 months after the Levy came into operation in 2017/18, down from 564,800 in the year before. In May 2018, the British Chambers of Commerce stated that “the system just isn’t working”, citing an adding to the “barriers, complexity and cost of recruiting and training staff” for smaller businesses.
Meanwhile, the Chartered Management Institute remarked that “we need to make it easier for employers to use the levy to invest in much-needed skills”, and it stressed reform was needed.
Launched in January 2021, the Apprenticeship Workforce Development (AWD) offer aims to support staff tasked with delivering apprenticeships in the FE sector with the “teaching skills, subject knowledge and confidence they need for the benefit of their learners”. Offered by the Education & Training Foundation, the AWD will help improve the experience of apprentices and reduce withdrawal rates. The AWD online CPD is available free of charge and the offer is split up into eight courses across four strands: assessor to teacher; effective technical teaching; technical curriculum design; and apprenticeship leadership.
Hailing the launch, Gillian Keegan, minister for apprenticeships and skills, said: “As set out in our Skills for Jobs White Paper, this comprehensive package of professional development will support training providers to deliver higher quality teaching, curriculum design, preparation for end point assessment and overall apprenticeship management.”
She added: “This training offers an authoritative foundation in apprenticeship delivery as we ask for even better quality from our training providers. It will also give even more confidence to employers as they invest in the apprenticeship levy and help to ensure that every apprentice benefits from high-quality management and teaching.”
Young people can be adversely affected by the unhelpful misconceptions that exist of them and “the lack of understanding among young people of employment in general [can] affect the mutual expectations even before the relationship begins,” according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Speaking back in 2014, Katerina Rüdiger, Head of Skills and Policy Campaigns at the CIPD, said: “The Apprenticeship system is about to undergo its biggest shake-up in decades, with employers being placed at the heart of the system. To capitalise on this, it is important that all stakeholders get it right when it comes to ensuring a mutually beneficial and sustainable apprenticeship match.”
What was true then is true now. Expectations from both sides need to be managed so that each knows what they will be getting when undertaking an apprenticeship. ‘The Match Factor’ document prepared by the CIPD stated: “Our review of the process of recruiting young people into Apprenticeships shows that practices used in recruitment are critical to creating a successful employment relationship between the employer and the learner.”
“For example, advertising, the structure of the application process and the selection methods directly impact the quality of apprenticeship recruits,” it pronounced. “In addition, the experiences of the employer and the young person during recruitment indirectly impact the perceptions and attitudes around Apprenticeships and, therefore, the longevity of the match.”