Blog post

Apprenticeships – can they help to fix the skills crisis?

With one in every four vacancies proving hard to fill because of a shortage of candidates with the right skills, can apprenticeships provide the answer? The University of Derby’s Head of Apprenticeships, Jane Lowe, looks at the issues preventing employers from tapping in to this valuable resource.

By Jane Lowe - 11 April 2018

The Hays – Global Skills Index (2016) has reported that the skills gap has declined by 8% over the past five years, and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2017) commented that ‘one in every four vacancies is proving hard to fill because of a shortage of candidates with the right skills’. The OCED Report (2016) also found that English teenagers aged 16 to 19 rank 22nd in a list of 23 developed nations for numeracy skills.

As a champion of apprenticeships at all levels, I will be blunt: we have one of the answers to fixing our skills crisis staring us in the face. Apprenticeships embed the knowledge, skills and behaviour in the workplace aligned with a specific job role. They are designed to attract participation from those individuals who may not want to go back into a traditional route to education, or staff that need to work, but can upskill to progress their careers.

Apprenticeships are changing traditions in all sectors.

KPMG report that on their Digital Degree Apprenticeships alone, nearly half of their apprentices are women, yet despite the obvious benefits apprenticeship brings, we seem to be only patting them on the back when we need to give them a huge hug!

There are flaws in the rules, and some large employers are still not using the levy. I don’t think that the IfA has fully grasped its full purpose in supporting the growth of apprenticeships and further standard developments, but in order to make something work, we need to be solution-focused, and actively develop the standards to ensure apprenticeships are a success, starting with supporting our employers.

The elephant in the room

We need to address the ‘elephant in the room’ that employers and providers tell me is preventing their full engagement to use the funding or levy. Actually, it’s not just an elephant in the room, it’s more of a herd of elephants charging all over the place, preventing engagement and resulting in the drop in apprenticeship starts.

These are the issues employers are telling us about:

“In order to address our skills gap, I need to recruit more apprentices, which increases headcount, therefore increasing my levy costs. I’d rather see the levy as a tax than raise my staffing costs”

The answer to this is to seek out a training provider with well-qualified and knowledgeable business advisors who can help look out a staff skills matrix, to see where other training costs can be off-set against the levy, in order to deliver an apprenticeship to existing staff.

This will then identify where other skill gaps are which may require a new apprenticeship vacancy. If there is any levy left, the training provider can help identify any of their supply chain that may need support in plugging their productivity gap, thereby supporting the entire sector.

“I can’t support the 20% ‘off the job’ rule, as I need my staff to work”

With a bit of innovation and imagination, blended/online learning can address this rule and delivers a more engaging way of learning. ‘Off the job’ does not mean being away from the work premises, it means the apprentice needs to have time away from their normal duties, and more time looking at what gives them added value in their job role, and new experiences in their apprenticeship.

It also doesn’t have mean one day a week away from work either; the hours required over the duration of the apprenticeship can be planned with the training provider to ensure quality and compliance, but flexibility is key to success. One of our apprenticeships has a week away on a construction site, for example, working within a different environment.

Using an E-Portfolio helps to give all on the apprenticeship the ability to track hours off the job, and it may be that the apprentice has more off the job time than perceived. Inductions cannot be funded, but they can if they evidence skills development and training from the outset. Again, working well with a joint induction with the training provider makes the 20% work better for all.

“There are not enough standards for the skills and job roles I need”

While the IfA are making changes to improve the length of time it takes to approve new standards, this is still an issue. However, most Chairs of the apprenticeship trailblazers that develop these standards are very approachable, and will give employers an idea of timeline in development, and the IfA website is really useful.

Working closely with a good provider ensures that a strategic plan of training aligns with the standard developments, and ensures that staff can have robust training planned over a period of time. It is to be noted that there are still quite a few framework apprenticeships available should it be efficient to set up, while waiting for the new standards to emerge.

“Do they have to complete an end point assessment, especially if they are being awarded a degree?”

Potentially this is the largest elephant in the room, but the EPA defines what an apprenticeship is all about, and separates it from any other programme. Whether there is an integrated or external assessment, this is the point where the apprentice has the opportunity to evidence what they have learned and appreciate all they have achieved, while also understanding areas they define where they need further training.

We are yet to see how successful this model will be, and I would ensure that all degree apprenticeships should be integrated in order to ensure parity when merging both technical and academic pathways, but the EPA provides a different way of evidencing higher level skills ability, and also giving those from disadvantaged backgrounds an alternative way of achieving a higher skill.

Does this put all the elephants in the safari park?

No, but I want to emphasise that while the reforms are not perfect, by having an employer-led model and more appropriate training to align a skill with job roles, we are heading in the right direction. Apprenticeships are meant to be challenging, but the rules in some areas are making them difficult to get off the ground.

Employers, colleges, private training providers, professional awarding bodies and universities all need to get behind apprenticeships, lobby where change is needed, take advantage of the funding and investment given to us and push forward and deliver training to repair our skills deficit and provide a pool of talent to replace our aging workforce.

To find out more about degree apprenticeships, email or call the Apprenticeship team at the University of Derby on 01332 591600.

About the author

Jane Lowe
Head of Apprenticeships

I am responsible for the strategic development and implementation of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, working closely with university colleagues, government agencies, local partnerships, employers sector skills councils, and other industry groups.