Educating apprentices

Gary Wyles explores the growth of apprenticeships and how businesses have a lot to relearn about our young learners.

It is a sad state of affairs when conversations in boardrooms state that even if there are apprenticeship jobs to be had, the quality of applicants is so poor that places often remain unfilled or at worst filled with applicants who are not fit for the role. 
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The Government has published figures stating that in its five-year term of office, it wants to create three million apprenticeships. The new apprenticeship levy, where employers who operate more than a £3million payroll bill have to pay a levy of 0.5 per cent on that payroll, has certainly raised the profile of apprenticeships. 
Equally, the work of Trailblazer employers to create new apprenticeship standards that are tailored to specific sectors and industries have indeed been extremely worthwhile. 
Implementing the apprenticeship levy and the new standards alongside existing qualifications is new and unchartered territory. For organisations that have to contribute to the Levy it will have a substantial impact on their business. Put this on top of the National Living Wage that’s just been introduced and there are significant changes required and plans to be adopted in a very short time frame. 
The levy comes into force in April 2017 and there are still a number of standards that have not yet been approved. Indeed, how the levy will be enforced and how training will be provided is currently not at all clear, with guidelines changing on a weekly basis. What we do know is that Maths and English will form a part of every standard to improve the numeracy and literacy levels of people undertaking an apprenticeship.
This basic education is a new role for employers to adopt and shows the awareness of the Government about the lack of ‘job-ready’ potential apprentices. 
All right moves we might say, however, there is one giant part of the apprenticeship puzzle that is missing. 
It is not in the best interests of educational establishments to push quality students and candidates down the apprenticeship route. Why? Every school is measured on the number of students who go onto higher education.
Look at any website or pick up any promotional material from secondary schools and further education establishments, and the statistics that are quoted are usually around the percentage of A* to C grades that are attained and a proud display of the number of students who progress onto university or higher education. 
Then there is also the influence and impact of parents on the choices their children make. For generations parents have been told that the path to future success is to send their children to university. In recent years the number of graduates has spiked.
The number of degrees available, from the highly academic to the more vocational and practical, reached an all time high. Of course, since the introduction of university tuition fees, some people have considered other options.
Unfortunately, the conversations around boardroom tables are still depressingly similar, with leaders bemoaning the fact that graduates are not job ready and do not have the requisite skills to make a difference in the business.
As part of the manufacturing and engineering community, apprenticeships have traditionally been more embedded in our sector. Yet many organisations have shut down their apprenticeship schemes over the past 20 years and while these are now reopening, a lot of their learning has been lost.
We have forgotten how to mentor and coach our apprentices to perform better. We have been left behind in the technological revolution. We have lost touch with the qualities and the characteristics of 16-18 year olds. As employers, we have a lot to relearn.  
Even before the Government’s announcement to focus on apprenticeship programmes, in the manufacturing and engineering sector we knew we had to do something. There has been a real push to increase the number of pupils taking STEM subjects at GCSE level and beyond.
In Festo, one in 10 of our staff is a STEM ambassador. We’ve engaged in high-profile activities around the Big Bang Fair and the UK Skills Fair to inspire young people to consider engineering as a career and show that apprenticeship programmes can lead to well-paid careers. 
It is working but it is a slow and gradual process. It’s about focussing on the future. If you speak to leaders and senior management teams in manufacturing, you will find that many came through the apprenticeship route. In fact this was the route I took.
Then apprenticeship programmes stopped. It’s not just the case that we’re missing a young generation of talent; we’re also short of management and leadership skills in organisations. In a 2015 research report with Works Management, Festo found that 88 per cent of organisations are experiencing skills shortages of key personnel.
That’s an increase from 82 per cent in 2014 and 75 per cent in 2013. We need to act now to ensure the sustainability for our organisations and to address the skills gap for the future. 
The focus on employers and the work of Trailblazers mean that the standards for apprenticeship training have been developed specifically for the needs of different sectors. That’s a great move forward.
While the apprenticeship levy will impact large employers, many small and medium sized organisations will be the winners. Now we just have to get parents and educational establishments onboard to help recognise, promote and endorse the apprenticeship career path as a worthwhile and valuable route to a rewarding career. 
About the author
Gary Wyles is the managing director of Festo Training and Consultancy.


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