Three million apprenticeship starts is the wrong target

“Short cuts make long delays,” remarked the hobbit Pippin in the Lord of the Rings.  That’s good advice, really – whether you are on a quest to overthrow an evil Dark Lord by casting his magic ring into a fiery chasm, or if you have a rather more wonkish goal in mind.

Empty-production-line-Wonkhe-930x515It’s a lesson we need to learn when it comes to apprenticeships. Investing in technical and vocational education is the right thing to do, but putting quantity before quality is not. The government has set a goal of three million apprenticeship starts by 2020. However, recent figures show a decline in the number of starts and hitting the target looks increasingly unlikely. So, let’s adjust our aim and focus on delivering quality.

Driving the government’s apprenticeships policy is the need to boost productivity. The best way of achieving this is by offering high-quality training schemes that lead to high-skill, high-pay employment. If we want apprenticeships to enjoy parity of esteem with the academic route – and encourage more people to opt for this route – then we shouldn’t compromise on their quality. That’s the danger behind the target of ‘three million starts’.

Businesses not prepared for expansion

Prioritising quality means we need to iron out some underlying issues that are holding us back. In my own experience, many businesses are simply not prepared for a sudden growth in apprenticeships. One employer told me they would need to take on 1,000 apprentices to spend all their apprenticeship levy funding, which they are not in a position to do. They don’t have the resources to either manage or mentor such large numbers of apprentices – and yet many employers are unaware they can offset 10% of their levy to support training elsewhere in the supply chain. But it’s not just large businesses that are struggling to match up to the government’s ambition. A number of smaller organisations have told me they are planning to write-off their levy funding. This need not be the case if they work with providers who can help them develop a training strategy.

Other businesses, such as those in the rail sector in Derby, are keen to recruit apprentices but the standards have still not been approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA). Similar stories are coming from the education sector, where the apprenticeship standard for teaching has only just been approved and, consequently, there are only a few training providers ready for September 2018. Apprenticeships typically have to go through four stages of approval, which includes getting employers to agree on their requirements, and this process can take around two years.

For those organisations that do take on apprentices, the ‘off the job’ training element can cause staffing problems. This especially seems to be the case in the health and social care sector, where employers are having to spend significant amounts on temporary staff to cover the workload. This also seems to be a barrier for employees looking to upskill, particularly through the chartered manager degree apprenticeship’ route. There are still five days of work to do, so taking time out each week for training may not be an option for everyone.

A quick fix won’t work for the NHS

Healthcare is a good example of a sector with skills shortages that would benefit from recruiting apprentices. Unfortunately, there are teething problems that will take time to fix. For example, the University of Derby developed a nursing degree apprenticeship a few years ago, but the introduction of the ‘nursing associate’ role in 2017 led to a change in recruitment strategy for local NHS Trusts. As a result, we shifted our training focus in turn, and are now a major provider of nursing associate training in England. But shifting focus takes time and money, and further policy changes would cause more delays.

Public sector procurement processes have also slowed-down recruitment, while other bodies are struggling to find appropriate training providers nearby. One employer, located three hours away from Derby, contacted us as we are one of only three providers who can deliver the degree apprenticeship they require. This means that their apprentices would be out for two days each week: one day for face-to-face training, one day for travel.

Getting it right takes time

Universities are well-placed to champion the apprenticeships agenda, and to offer greater choice to young people and mature learners. Here in Derby, we have already seen how universities can partner with local employers to make a difference. For example, the local minerals technology industry has an ageing workforce and has struggled to recruit younger employees. The University of Derby therefore partnered with businesses such as Tarmac, Aggregate Industries, and Hanson UK – to deliver apprenticeship programmes that have, so far, enabled the recruitment of over 90 young people by the sector.

Boosting productivity and addressing the skills deficit, are long-term projects that need patience. Implemented properly, the government’s apprenticeships policy could be a game-changer, by enabling more people to develop skills that industry needs, but this kind of change won’t happen if we compromise quality in a rush to chase numbers.

Author Jane Lowe, Head of Apprenticeships at the University of Derby

Article published by Wonkhe and copied with permission –