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Renaissance, but not quite the full picture
Print – Issue 174 | Article of the Week

Angela Middleton


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There’s no doubt that the apprenticeship system has been through a rigorous set of changes, in a bid to fit the pressing skills crisis. Discarding the oily overall reputation, apprentices can now be seen besuited in; courts, financial trading halls, IT and even PR and marketing offices. Apprenticeships straddle the multi-generational workplace, with increasingly older demographics up and cross-skilling, to stay ahead of the digital curve. So, what’s not to like? Well…

Article by Angela Middleton MBE, Founder and Owner – MiddletonMurray Group

In some important key respects, the face of apprenticeships has most certainly transformed. As seen in the figures, the Government’s commitment to, and introduction of, the levy and the advancements in quality and regulation, have made a significant impact. But this is not the end of the story, merely the first couple of tricky to read chapters. The modern apprenticeship scheme still faces criticism from pretty much all players on the pitch including; politicians, employers – who do not want to pay the tax – the learners themselves and, still-to-be-convinced, schools, that simply do not view these courses as credible equivalents to higher education. But crucially, the steps that have been taken so far, and the time that has been dedicated to tightening up these programmes, are surely now beginning to show all parties that an apprenticeship presents a viable alternative to higher education? Well, as Alan Partridge might say; “the naysayers are not convinced”. For sure, there is still more room for much improvement. Taken at face value, apprenticeships can harness the talent of young people, whilst also upskilling current employees with all the benefits that promises. That is the statement on the side of the tin. So why aren’t employers prizing open the lid? 

Let us take a look at some history, to see whether the past can shine any light on the present and future path. A positive, upward trend in the uptake of apprenticeships is evident in the Government data published in January 2019. In the 1996/97 academic year there were only 65,000 apprenticeship starts, and it wasn’t until 2007/08 that these starts first exceeded 200,000. The apprenticeship figures have not fallen under 350,000 since 2009/10 and reached their peak in 2011/12, which could be attributed to the £150 million invested in May 2010 to create an extra 50,000 apprenticeship places. Considering the most recent Government data, 166,400 apprenticeship starts have been reported between August-November 2018, which is an increase on the same period in 2017/18 of 147,200. While this steady rise clearly indicates the increasing popularity of apprenticeships, this does not mean we can stand back and admire our handy work, as employers and learners skip off down the path to abundant key skills heaven. The most prominent change over recent years is the rise in apprenticeship starts of over 25 year olds, which has continually increased since these were made available in 2004/05. Since 2010/11, 25-plus has been the biggest age group in apprenticeship starts each year, with 230,000 beginning their course in 2016/17, in comparison to 123,000 under 19 year olds. The first quarter of 2018/19 has shown a slight drop in lower level apprenticeship, but the Government is dedicating time to investigate whether this is related to the rise in management courses.

Taken at face value, apprenticeships can harness the talent of young people, whilst also upskilling current employees with all the benefits that promises. That is the statement on the side of the tin. So why aren’t employers prizing open the lid?

For the purpose of autopsy, its pertinent that we remind ourselves of the key functions of the levy, so please bear with it: Introduced 2017 to provide employers with incentive to be involved through more accessible funding, coupled with the Government’s commitment 2020 target; the levy is only paid by employers with an annual paybill in excess of £3 million, but the ‘digital fund’, where the money is held, can be accessed by much smaller organisations, to assist with the cost of apprenticeship training. This incentivises smaller businesses to take on apprenticeships so they can benefit from the funding, whilst upskilling their employees and juniors. Often, organisations are keen to invest in training so the apprenticeship levy gives any budget-conscious company a helping hand with these costs. The organisations with a large enough pay-bill have no choice but to contribute and, if they choose not to include apprenticeships, they do not get the money back. This pushes these organisations to not simply rely on rhetoric supporting apprenticeship schemes, but to actually put initiatives in place and break down the negative stigma. So far… so good? Initially, there was not as much uptake for the levy as expected, with a drop in young people undertaking an apprenticeship in 2017/18 when compared to 2016/17 and 2015/16. However, now more time has passed, the benefits of the levy are taking hold when the most recent data is considered. There has been a 15.4 percent increase in apprenticeship uptake in the first quarter of 2018/19 when compared to the figures from the same period in 2017/18. With 46 percent of the total starts reported so far in 2018/19 (Quarter 1) being ‘levy supported’, we can see levy money is being utilised. This is in addition to other government programmes such as the ‘five Cities’, which are designed to encourage apprenticeships among under-represented groups. 

My feelings are, it’s a bit like the London Olympics, when announced, everyone went around saying; “How can we match China? It’ll be a big expensive fiasco and we’ll be a laughing stock”. Then on Super Saturday, the whole nation was floating around in some golden orb of wonder. Likewise, apprenticeships hold so much potential, we cannot afford to do half a job and hope for the best. There are so many benefits for employers that may not immediately spring to mind, but are essential, if the UK wants to continue to compete with growing economies. Entrepreneurism is consistently rising in the UK, with many individuals choosing to break out of the corporate sphere and into business ownership. Yet if the business takes off, these individuals may find themselves in a position of managing staff, something they may never have had previous experience of, or training in, with predictable  consequences. Here, apprenticeships can step up to plate, with training courses in  leadership and management, which can provide start-ups with crucial leadership skills to ensure employees are managed effectively. Encouragingly, these courses in particular are on the rise, with ‘Team Leader/Supervisor’ being the most popular standard in the first quarter of 2018/19. For apprenticeships to be utilised to their full potential, it is vital they are not just seen as a qualification for young people, but an opportunity to continue learning at any age. 

Apprenticeships can offer employers an indispensable way to increase employee retention and satisfaction. For example, an employee may approach you wanting to change career or to increase their skillset, by moving on from your business, but they are valuable to your business and you really do want to avoid the costly hiring process if possible. Offering them the chance to widen their knowledge through a higher apprenticeship, gives you as an employer a way to retain this talent, whilst allowing them the chance to widen their own skill set. If this talented employee leaves your business their new employer will make the most of any new skills, but by offering them training as part of their role with you, your organisation can only benefit from the new expertise they possess, and your organisation will remain competitive. 

The apprenticeship levy and increasing interest means that both the quality and regulation of programmes has been steadily increasing. Not only does this mean that those learning will have a better quality of education, but they will be protected from inadequate standards by regulatory bodies monitoring education quality, such as introducing a minimum duration. Ofsted performs regular examinations on all apprenticeship providers to ensure a compliant, high-standard is maintained alongside the Institute for Apprenticeships, which also oversees the area. Both of these bodies have assisted the apprenticeship programme in gaining popularity for both the learner and the employer as the training is becoming more rigorous. Other external training programmes may not have the same level of regulation to ensure quality training is provided. 

So what is the state of apprenticeships in the UK? It is undeniable that there has been significant progress in the field in recent years. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy indicates government support for providing both young people and those who are retraining with an equivalent option to university. This government support begins to open doors for employers to access this untapped talent and maximise the funds available to them. This increase in accessibility for employers can only strengthen the appeal for small businesses looking to make the most of their money. The discourse around apprenticeships has completely changed. There are still employers, parents and students who do not see the true value of these courses, but the steps that have been taken in recent years only pave the way for more individuals and organisations to realise the true potential of apprenticeships.

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