The Apprenticeship Levy: Success or failure?

Gareth Jones sees a positive future for the Apprenticeship Levy.

You would be forgiven for thinking that apprenticeships are doomed and that vocational learning is not the way forward if you believed all of the recent media headlines and hype. A lot has been written and discussed in the papers and trade magazines about Department for Education stats that show a 41% decline in the number of people starting apprenticeships between May and July 2017.

In most quarters the reduction has been attributed to the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, which insists that firms with a wage bill of £3m or higher pay a monthly fee into a pot for organisations to tap into if they are looking to employ apprentices.

Whilst all sectors knew it was coming, there still seems a massive discord with what the Government were trying to do and what it has actually achieved. Lack of communication? Training provider engagement or lack of it? Firms wanting more flexibility with training?

These are all valid concerns and ones I tend to hear a lot when I’m talking to companies about their skills and competency needs and how they can best meet them.

There is still a perception that industry isn’t a great career to go into and, whilst we are changing that, we need to do more to paint a picture of what modern day manufacturing is like.

However, is it fair to say that the levy is failing?

Recent research with engineering and manufacturing firms showed that 55% of respondents felt it was working. It’s not a resounding approval and there is obviously a lot of discontentment out there, but it is still a positive.

Furthermore, just over a fifth of companies questioned said the change had encouraged them to take on more apprentices which has to be a good thing. Some of the anecdotal information featured in the report centred around poor communication, a lack of understanding and confusion with all of the new types of standards being introduced.

The latter was another bone of contention. Two thirds of manufacturers clearly stated that they didn’t get the new Trailblazer Standards, with 87% of those indicating that content was a major stumbling block. This is very disappointing and probably reflects a wider issue in the way apprenticeships are delivered and training providers need to shoulder their share of the blame.

Too many are still caught up with the original apprenticeship framework and not supporting their clients to explore the benefits of Trailblazers, which should, in theory, deliver a more rounded and skilled person for your business.

So if it’s not purely a case of the levy not working, what has trigged the number of apprenticeship starts to take such a drastic fall? It’s difficult to pinpoint one specific reason and probably a combination of a number of ingredients.

The sector may have got a little blasé in thinking that all of the marketing hype around vocational learning would deliver the numbers, neglecting the hard work and engagement with young people that is so crucial in convincing them that engineering and manufacturing is the right career for them.

There is still a perception that industry isn’t a great career to go into and, whilst we are changing that, we need to do more to paint a picture of what modern day manufacturing is like.

It’s robotics, it’s CAD/CAM systems, it’s precision CNC machines, it’s playing a role in making sure F1 cars get faster, aeroplanes are lighter, people can walk again – all played out in bright factories. That’s the message we need to get across and we need schools, college and universities to join us in getting this message out there.

And the latter needs to be much more than just lip service. There has to be a real co-ordinated approach and nothing would please the sector more than for teachers to get involved with industry so they fully understand the opportunities that exist.

This isn’t a riposte to education. I see it as more a tri-party collaboration where everyone plays their part. Government with the right conditions and funding, education and training providers with the right engagement and manufacturers affording young people the same opportunity they had to complete a full-time apprenticeship.

At the moment this isn’t really happening, with only a third of the firms featured in the research happy to let their apprentice spend the first 18 months off site. This has to change. The skills issue will only get more severe if we don’t have a co-ordinated approach to getting apprenticeships back on track.

Let’s ALL take responsibility and bridge that gap.


About the author

Gareth Jones is managing director of In-Comm Training​


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