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A degree of preparedness

David Willett

Following the announcement of the Apprenticeship Levy it has been difficult for employers to take a real strategic approach, because Government has been drip-feeding additional details and confirming policy since. We’re there now, but there is a real danger that some organisations, in their rush to ensure they have an apprenticeship programme in place, may not have done everything that will enable them to make the most of the opportunity.

Article by By David Willett, Head of Propositions at The Open University.

Clearly the April 2017 introduction of the levy is now very close, but the wide range of material benefits that apprenticeships can bring means senior HR professionals should be trumpeting their virtues and highlighting how degree-level apprenticeship programmes can do so much more for their organisation. As a result, their apprenticeship programmes may fall short of delivering the ‘holy trinity’; of ensuring that this investment in talent delivers enhanced performance; increased efficiency and improved productivity. However, there are some key questions that first need to be asked: Do you, the HR director, know what the levy contribution means for your organisation? Equally, does the CFO know? Has any modelling been done to quantify what the financial impact will be and how your organisation could spend that levy (bearing in mind that apprenticeships are often delivered over two, three or four years)?


The basic principles of the levy and the associated benefits are now commonly understood by most large employers, and most have a good grasp of these principles at this stage. However there are a wider set of benefits that are not as commonly talked about: Avoiding the productivity ‘gap’ – degree-level apprentices are able to deliver value to the organisation almost immediately, before they have attained their qualification. This can be in marked contrast to fresh graduates, who need to spend time in the organisation gaining the work experience they need in order to be able to operate effectively. Cost efficiencies – Degree-level apprenticeship programmes offer an opportunity to bring in and nurture sought-after talent at an earlier stage, at lower salary levels than graduates command. Improved talent attraction – the opportunity to gain a nationally-recognised, degree-level qualification, without being liable for around £27,000 of tuition fee costs, while at the same time gaining valuable work experience AND earning money is a very attractive proposition.

Better employee retention – integrated, work-based apprenticeship programmes can also be used to develop the skills of existing employees as part of a planned personal development programme, helping increase motivation, job satisfaction and a sense of loyalty. They can also be used as part of a redeployment programme post-organisational restructure. Providing valuable opportunities for existing junior line managers – helping them to develop their managerial and mentoring skills, and gain valuable early line management experience, while supporting the apprentices. So, with so many financial, operational, and employee benefits potentially available to a strategically-focussed business, here are five steps that HR directors should take to ensure their organisation makes good use of this opportunity, maximising apprenticeships for improved performance and results: Align apprenticeships with business strategy; Conduct a skills audit; Take an integrated approach; Be diligent when choosing a training provider; Support and engage employees and Align apprenticeships with business strategy. To make the most of apprenticeships opportunities, make sure that the goals of your apprenticeship programme feed in to the strategic objectives of the business. Will the apprenticeship programmes be used to up-skill existing employees or to attract and train new people, or both?

The next step is to conduct a skills audit, using the business strategy to inform workforce planning. This will reveal the current skills gaps, or pinch-points, highlight where they are likely to occur in the future, and indicate how implementing the right work-based learning apprenticeship programmes can alleviate them. It helps to think about required job roles at this stage, to help determine skill level requirements. The completed skills audit should not only reveal the skills-base of existing staff, but also reveal the specific skills needed for the future. Measuring progress against the apprenticeship programmes effectiveness in delivering to fill these skills gaps can be an invaluable metric to help demonstrate the impact and effectiveness of the programmes. In order to make the most of new apprenticeship programmes, it is also important that they integrate with and complement the existing learning programmes. The skills audit may reveal that certain parts of existing training could potentially be substituted for apprenticeship training, saving money and avoiding duplication of spend.

The new apprenticeship standards, which replace the old apprenticeship frameworks, have been developed by employers for employers, and have been assiduously designed and ratified, which means buyers can be assured of a minimum level of training consistency and quality. However, the training provision marketplace is becoming more crowded and competitive, making it more difficult to pick through the different offerings and identify the provider which best meets your organisation’s needs. To help you, we have put together the following five questions to consider as part of the decision-making process: Do they have a proven track record & experience? How long has the provider been in business for? Do they receive industry awards and can they scale up and deliver if you have more than one office in different locations? Can they help you design your programmes to ensure they meet your objectives? And can they ensure work-based learning is embedded throughout?

Can they help with attraction, selection and recruitment? This can be quite time and resource-intensive, particularly if apprenticeship recruitment is new to your organisation. So sourcing a provider that can assist here will pay huge dividends, particularly as they will help you get the right quality of candidates. What’s their delivery methodology? Not everyone learns at the same rate, or has the same preferred learning methodology. If you’ve got a diverse workforce, you might want to consider providers that can blend online with classroom-based learning, and whether they can contextualise material to different employee segments. Can they access a wide range of standards to meet your needs? You’ll want to work with a provider that can offer a breadth of different standards. Some providers are forming consortiums and partner relationships to enable a wide range of programmes, which is often preferable for larger organisations as everything can be managed through one single source. These consortiums can also have the added benefit of bringing together the knowledge and expertise of a range of organisations, professional institutions and awarding bodies to better meet your needs.

Where else can they add value? Taking on apprentices can be a huge commitment in time as well as money, so you’ll want to find the partners that can routinely take some – or all – of the administrative burden away from you. By choosing a partner that can provide support with the skills audit, recruitment process and drawing down the funding, implementing apprenticeship programmes can be much smoother and successful. Can they add value in other ways too, such as by providing training for your managers to help with a cultural shift, or by mapping and accrediting your existing in-house training to apprenticeships standards? The focus so far has been on what business-driven preparations can be undertaken, such as people-audits and skills-gaps profiling. It is also important to think about how the organisational culture could be impacted – that is, ensuring your staff are informed, engaged and managed through the change.

Introducing new higher and degree apprentices will impact existing staff. Employees without degrees will be rubbing shoulders, or even doing the same work, as those that do. Also, apprentices may soon be in line for the same sort of promotional opportunities that non-apprentices might expect. For existing staff there could also be problems of integration and acceptance. It’s vital these cultural issues are addressed. The introduction of apprenticeships can impact line managers too. They may benefit from specific training to help them, as they are the people who will be providing direct support and providing feedback to apprentices. By supporting them with that process, your managers will be in a stronger position to ensure the introduction of apprenticeships is successful. Getting the most from apprentices strongly correlates with boosting the capacities of the people guiding their working and learning experience, but to get the most out of them it’s important to ensure they are implemented strategically and fully integrated into the organisation’s business strategy.


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