Skip navigation

Why a continuing national conversation about apprenticeships is vital

Apprenticeships are rarely out of the news. Even with other ‘distractions’, such as Brexit, the royal wedding or the World Cup, acres of newsprint and online column inches and hours of broadcast time continue to be devoted to them.

By Graham Hasting-Evans, managing director

Making the headlines

Compared to more pressing political and economic matters, apprenticeships might seem a dry, uninteresting focus for attention. However, it’s a topic relevant to most of the public in some way or another. Parents, school-goers, employees and employers know the importance of being equipped for challenging years ahead.

They see we live in interesting times, where skills shortages shape the recruitment landscape and where the zero hours contracts and the gig economy await those without tradeable accreditations. They know that there is a threat to the UK economy from the ‘productivity deficit’ and huge opportunities for organisations and individuals who tool up for the white hot, hi tech, ultra-competitive economy of the 21st century – and the many pitfalls that await those who don’t.

Employers and workers also realise the imperative of continuous learning and development, staying on top of their sector’s latest techniques, processes and trends. In a wholly virtuous circle, lifelong education propels career development, which boosts companies’ skills bases, productivity and profits, which fuels the perennial need to keep attracting, engaging and developing the best candidates.

And apprenticeships can be a great big, bold, red tick for every one of these boxes.

Reportage and opinion isn’t always favourable, though; lower than anticipated uptake; employers’ grumbles at the Apprenticeship Levy; learners who have been ripped off by rogue providers and employers. And, some of the negative comment is fair. After all, what other project on the scale of the UK’s national apprenticeship drive doesn’t have problems?

However, there is near unanimity among economists, decision makers, media commentators, academics and employers that apprenticeships are not merely a major force for good, but fundamentally vital if the UK is to remain a major global commercial force.

An international issue

Our economic recovery hinges on having the skills base of a modern economy - 20% of our growth over the last two decades was driven by them. Yet we remain resolutely stuck mid table in the international skills leagues - fifteenth out of 34 in the OECD literacy ranking and 17th for numeracy, with one in five citizens lacking these basic aptitudes.

In 2015, 90% of jobs across the EU required basic computer skills, yet half of UK adults were without them. No wonder UK productivity is stuck in reverse as we slip down a slope topped by G7 rivals.
And not only do employees lack knowledge; there is a crippling shortage of actual employees, too. A situation not helped by the exodus of EU workers, as those from Eastern Europe revise their perspective of the UK as a destination of choice. The next decade will see 13.5m job vacancies but, as things stand, the staffing pipeline will only be able to deliver seven million market entrants to fill them.

It means that we have to muster a labour pool that spans the age spectrum and gear it up to the challenges of hyper-competition driven by the economic dynamos of China and India; an EU that, although dented by Brexit, will forge ahead without us; and the spectre of isolationism and trade tariffs rising across the Atlantic.

More than just a fad

To serve us well, our workforce must be given the opportunity to gain gateway/re-entry qualifications - either on the job or through wholly relevant, vocational courses - and the chance to keep advancing at work, enriching themselves and their employers via additional skills.

This is why the government has put such an emphasis on apprenticeship schemes. Its reforms are the most ambitious for a generation and feature a payroll tax on large employers, with revenues deployed exclusively for apprenticeships and a target of three million starts by 2020.

In the first year, though, the number of starts was actually down 25%, leaving it way adrift of that figure. And that is precisely why we must keep the conversation going and the spotlight firmly on apprenticeships. We need a quest for improvements and solutions; disruption of what’s not working, production-led philosophies and bad practice; the widest diversity in learners possible; suggestions on how the Apprenticeship Levy should be best spent; and forecasts of future economic drivers and demands.

Big ambitions

For that reason, a major new collection of essays on the future of apprentices from the Learning and Work Institute is so welcome. All change: Where next for apprenticeships features insight and thought-provoking challenges from some of our finest political, academic, commercial and economic minds. The ten-strong collection includes calls for half of all young people going to higher education to be apprentices; for part of the Levy to be diverted into helping people prepare for schemes; for dismaying inequalities in access among BEM people to be swept away; for a 50:50 male/female split (women make up less than 3.5% of engineering apprentices); and greater autonomy for cities and local authorities in how schemes are most usefully delivered in their areas.

I passionately believe that the good work achieved by apprenticeships and their huge potential far outweigh the bad. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be heading the nation’s largest awarding organisation and number one independent apprentice assessor.

That said, there is no room for complacency because the relatively few negative processes and players in the national learning landscape wreak consequences far out of proportion to their number. More new starts must be achieved and the eradication of inefficiency, inequality, bad behaviour and shoddy practice are crucial in doing so. The straight-talking, highly pragmatic new essay collection is an excellent staging post on the ceaseless drive to ever higher standards – but we must keep the conversation going.