Misconceptions surrounding apprenticeships are beginning to change, albeit slowly. A 2018 survey carried out by The Sutton Trust revealed 64% of young people are more interested in undertaking an apprenticeship than studying for a degree – up 9% from four years prior. One of the leading assumptions is that apprenticeships provide lower-quality career prospects than other higher education options and it is pleasing to see this stereotype is beginning to be eradicated. By now our readers – and the rest of the UK – are more than familiar with the growing problem of a countrywide skills and productivity gap. The engineering sector alone needs to attract an extra 186,000 skilled workers per year until 2024 in order to keep up with current demand.
The growing availability of apprenticeships is thanks, in part, to the Apprenticeship Levy, which came into effect in April 2017. The Apprenticeship Levy is a 0.5% tax on all employers with a pay bill of over £3 million, which is used to fund apprenticeship training in the UK.
It has been widely agreed that this scheme has massively impacted apprenticeships as a whole and given employers the scope to create the more expensive and higher-skilled apprenticeships that are desperately needed to fill the void in the current workforce. As a result, over 40,000 specifically skilled, experienced and qualified workers have made their way into employee starved sectors. This has provided an even more noticeable benefit in those traditionally difficult-to-fill roles where employees who study under real-world professionals end up with legitimate experience and are consequently better qualified than those trained solely in the classroom.
A Change in Apprenticeships
It therefore has come as quite a shock to learn that the Association of Employment and Learning Providers has proposed the withdrawal of levy funding for higher-level apprenticeships in favour of supporting ‘school leaver’ apprentices. While this move will hopefully succeed in helping those without GCSEs or equivalent onto the ladder, the true skills shortages are around levels 4-7: Highly skilled workers who will increase productivity and therefore high wage economy. As University Vocational Awards Council member, Adrian Anderson asks:
“Will the UK suffer because of fewer Level 2 business administration, customer service or retail apprentices?”
It is difficult to disagree that the AELP’s approach breaks down when applied to the public sector. We can’t expect the NHS to spend on registered nursing degree apprenticeships while contributing to levy funds that will in turn be spent on supporting the development of low level retail assistances for small private businesses – that may or may not even lead to full and long term employment.
While Ofsted argues that the focus should be on 16-18 year olds without level two qualifications, the wider ramifications of this need to be considered more carefully. In the public sector, degree apprenticeships can be used to coax more women and BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnicities) through the police station doors to help the force better reflect the communities they serve – as well as advancing careers of low-level hospital workers, developing the personnel for which the NHS is desperately crying out.
If Ofsted, instead, focussed on the improvement of school standards, the AELP would not need to pick up the pieces with Level 2 apprenticeships for pupils who have been failed by the school systems.