It’s now approaching 2 years since we started to see the early effects of the wide reaching Apprenticeship Reform Programme. In this time, I’ve worked with teams and employers of all shapes, sizes and sectors and it’s fair to say that it’s been a huge learning curve for all involved. Navigating a new system, and all of the ambiguities that come with it, is never easy. However, despite some negativity around the current failings of the apprenticeship system, I believe that there are plenty of positives to take from it too.
For the first time, apprenticeships have become a board level conversation and, whilst often triggered by a realisation that there is a new cost line of 0.5% of the pay bill, it has also opened up many conversations about the possibility of gaining a return on the Levy ‘investment’ that can be realised if used wisely. A return which can be achieved through creating a more diverse, productive and sustainable workforce. Most businesses are taking apprenticeships seriously and have awoken to the opportunity that they represent, not just to do the right thing, but also to create a vibrant and healthy business.
Across both the Levy paying employer sphere and smaller, non-Levy (co-investment) employers, I’ve seen a significant increase in employers’ expectations compared to the world before the Levy. Whilst this can be scary for training and assessment providers and will inevitably leave some dissatisfied, I believe that these changing expectations, and even dissatisfaction itself, can be a fantastic catalyst for change.
For the first time, many employers have a stronger sense of the cost/price of apprenticeships and this is helping to wash away the apprenticeship apathy of old. Many have underestimated that price in itself, is such a critical factor in establishing the right level of perceived value in the mind of the purchaser. Without the right level of perceived value, how could apprenticeships, or even the apprentices themselves, ever receive the respect that they deserve? To value and appreciate the apprenticeship brand is crucial if we are to achieve our ambitions for social mobility and productivity in the UK.
From unwitting recipient to discerning purchaser is not too strong a way to describe the transition that many employers have made over the last year or so when choosing the training provider and programmes that are right for them. In spite of residing in a complex and often contradictory system, many employers are getting really smart in their process and decision making around apprenticeships. These discerning purchasers are making training providers think more and add more value for money, ensuring that programmes are designed, developed and delivered to meet employer and learner needs, whilst guaranteeing the standards are met and maintained.
Good board conversations, higher expectations and more discerning purchasers are all great signs for the future of apprenticeships. However meeting the needs of all stakeholders truly is a balancing act for training and assessment organisations - one that they need help with, as there are challenges aplenty to work through if we are to create a high performing apprenticeship system for the UK.
At the outset of the Levy and still today, many employers have taken the understandable default position of seeing how the utilisation of apprenticeships could support the reduction of Learning and Development spend and therefore offset the Levy. In some instances, this could be considered positive, as it has led to more comprehensive development programmes which will support improved retention, progression and productivity, amongst a range of other tangible benefits for employer and employee alike. Whereas in other instances, it has simply been an attempt to cut costs which is worrying.
I’ve also seen examples when employer expectations or demands have been unrealistic or simply not a good or appropriate use of public funds. Where this has involved good training providers, they have been comfortable and confident in walking away from this business. I’ve found that placing the best interests of the apprentice at the heart of these decisions actually makes the decision itself, very easy.
Although we’re around two years into the Reform programme we’re still learning. Whilst many are keen to point out the problems, we’re not quite ready for assessing how well, or otherwise, we’ve realised the benefits of Apprenticeship Reform just yet. There are great signs of progression in market behaviours, but there are lots of areas where we still need the time to build our knowledge of, and skills in, making the best of this new system.
Our new Apprenticeship system is complex, but so is life. It follows that if we want to change lives with this system, then of course it’s going to be complex. I’m embracing the complexity, I’m collaborating, trying to find new and better ways to do things and I don’t plan on settling any time soon. If you’d like to start (or continue) to help to drive the value, integrity and reputation of apprenticeships, get in touch for a conversation, - the best ideas and relationships usually start with one.
David Gallagher, Managing Director, NCFE Apprenticeship Services