Blog post

The truth about apprenticeships

Denise Baker, Head of Pre-Qualification Healthcare at the University of Derby, talks about apprenticeships and how they are seemingly becoming unpopular to employers and why.

By Dr Denise Baker - 1 December 2017

A fall in apprenticeships

Numbers of new apprentices have dropped dramatically this year compared to this time last year, but ironically 2017 has seen the introduction of measures to increase apprenticeships, not reduce them. The government's current policy has seen the introduction of a payroll tax for large employers which is specifically to pay for apprenticeships - the apprenticeship levy. The policy also promises of three million new apprentices and sets out targets to encourage public sector organisations to use apprenticeships to train staff. Is government policy failing already or are other factors at play?

Learning on the job

Apprenticeships are not new - their origins in medieval times have shaped the way we think about apprenticeships even today. The common view is that the apprentice learns from the expert over a period of time before becoming proficient themselves. Apprenticeships could take years to complete and were once popular and desirable options for 16-year-olds. Getting a 'trade' was seen as the pinnacle of aspiration for some, and you would have a job for life. Apprenticeships are still popular and desirable, but have suffered from a bad press over the years and have somehow become viewed with less respect in more recent times.

Many of us are old enough to remember the Youth Training Scheme of the late 1980s. This was a government apprenticeship scheme aimed at reducing high levels of youth unemployment at the time, but didn't always lead to employment at the end of the training. It fell out of favour but was revived as the 'Modern Apprenticeship' in the 1990s. Why 'modern'? To distinguish it from apprenticeships which had gained a reputation of being poor quality and badly organised. Again, the modern apprenticeship was driven by government policy aimed at improving youth employment but supply exceeded demand.

The market became flooded with apprenticeships but employers were not sending their employees on them. Apprenticeships were criticised for not being fit for purpose, of variable quality and driven by government policy rather than economic or training need. Employers demanded more and more content be added to apprenticeships to increase their quality and better meet employers' needs, eventually making them too onerous for the apprentice. Once again, apprenticeships fell out of favour, but never quite disappeared.

Social mobility

Apprenticeships are making a comeback. This time the government is aiming to increase productivity and skills in the UK, but they are also to improve social mobility. If we increase and improve training, the UK will be able to do more, people will be able to gain more skills and eventually their job prospects and earning potential will increase. To address previous criticisms, the government is clear that employers are in the driving seat - they are responsible for specifying the knowledge, skills and behaviours necessary to complete the apprenticeship.

The Richards Review of 2012 suggested that each apprenticeship includes an 'independent' end point assessment in an attempt to overcome the challenge of poor quality training. The introduction of a standardised assessment across the country for each apprenticeship should mean that regardless of how they have been trained, employers can be confident that each apprentice meets a set standard. The potential for supply exceeding demand is still real - training providers are all too aware of the large amount of money the apprenticeship levy is ring fencing for training, but the message is very firmly that employers are in the driving seat.

Why the reduction of numbers?

There is no doubt that there have been teething troubles with the new apprenticeship system. Employers pay training providers via the Digital Apprenticeship Service (DAS). Both employer and provider must be registered on the service in order to utilise it. Even in January 2017, the Service was still being tested and honed. Information about registering for the DAS was not widely publicised so both sides struggled to get it up and running. Then there is the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers. Applications for the Register are allowed periodically but the first wave of approval was criticised for not meeting its own terms of reference. A second chance to apply was quickly announced and the number of approved providers increased, but this certainly slowed the scheme down.

The Institute for Apprenticeships is responsible for approving apprenticeship standards and end point assessment (EPA) design before they can be offered to employers. Both the standard (a description of the knowledge, skills and behaviours required for the apprenticeship) and the EPA are designed by groups of employers and training providers working together to agree these. This process is not quick as you might imagine, but even then further delays can occur if the IFA are not happy that the standard or EPA do not meet their guiding principles or requirements.

Funding rules are complicated for employers and training providers alike, but even with guidance from the Education and Skills Funding Agency, there are still unanswered questions and finding the answers to these cause further delays. Contracts need to be in place between employers and training providers which is nothing new, but generating contracts to meet the requirements of new (and evolving) regulations is challenging. Another hurdle to overcome.

Finally, in the last week of March 2017, a sudden change by the government meant that small employers (who are not paying the payroll tax) could not access the scheme as easily as initially promised.

Deterred bureaucracy?

Apprenticeships are being used across the educational spectrum this time - from entry level to high level university schemes. However, there are still perceptions that they are designed for young people doing manual jobs. Not so. Our apprentices at Derby range from school leavers to grandparents and will offer a range of training from mineral products to advanced clinical practitioners.

However, this will take time. The system is immature and employers are deterred by bureaucracy - this is evident from previous attempts to increase apprenticeships. It's certainly challenging to increase the number of apprentices at this time, but we cannot afford to ignore this opportunity. Much of tomorrow's workforce is already in the workforce - they need the opportunity to develop or retrain in order to meet the needs of the UK economy. Although the figures are disappointing at the moment, this is a developing area. Watch this space.

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About the author

Denise standing by the balcony at the University's Kedleston Road campus in the atrium. She is wearing black rimmed glasses and a blue sleeveless top.

Dr Denise Baker
Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the College of Health, Psychology and Social Care

Denise is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the College of Health, Psychology and Social Care at the University. She previously managed pre-qualifying healthcare and our foundation degrees/higher apprenticeships. She is currently studying for a professional doctorate exploring how apprenticeship policy is being implemented in the National Health Service.

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