Apprenticeships: Positive change for many businesses

Apprenticeships are making positive changes to many businesses up and down the UK. Richard Doughty looks at a few success stories.

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Almost two years after the launch of the apprenticeship levy, the government’s drive to promote apprenticeships as the key means of upskilling UK workers comes under scrutiny this month during the 12th annual National Apprenticeship Week (March 4-8) and in the run-up to the start of the Treasury’s imminent general spending review.

Many employers have, of course, been taking their time to adjust to the apprenticeship levy-based system, now that they rather than FE colleges have access to government funding and are thus free to decide which college or other learning provider they wish to pay to help train their apprentices. 

But despite natural caution caused by Brexit, lower than expected initial numbers of 16- to 18-year-olds being offered apprenticeships, and the time needed to create and then implement new apprenticeship training ‘standards’, many, particularly larger, employers are seeing apprenticeship programmes as an important means of upskilling existing staff.

“Over the past year, I’ve noticed employers have become more sophisticated in their thinking,” says Andy Cheshire, managing director of independent learning provider CQM Training and Consultancy, a specialist in the food and drink sector.

“They’re beginning to appreciate that, regardless of level of staff, an apprenticeship has become a genuine development route to lift people’s performance from one level to the next and that it should not be seen as just another training programme under a different name.”

More funds would also enable many hard-pressed SMEs to consider offering apprenticeships.

An added boost came last October, when the government announced reforms were needed and the Budget statement reflected constant CBI calls for more funding and flexibility for employers about how they could spend their levy funds and start closing the UK’s growing skills gap.

This is particularly apparent in the traditional STEM sectors (science, technology, engineering and maths), and exacerbated by the Brexit-driven reduction in the supply of skilled, reliable eastern European workers, returning home in the face of an uncertain UK future. 

The hope is that additional finance will enable more employers to train school-leavers, who will always require greater investment of time and money as they need to be trained from scratch on their way to forming the ‘next generation’ workforce.

More funds would also enable many hard-pressed SMEs to consider offering apprenticeships. Currently, smaller employers often cannot afford to take on apprentices who have a statutory right to 20% off-the-job training time away from normal workplace duties.

The good news is employers’ increasing awareness of the problem-solving abilities of fresh-eyed apprentices to spot and tackle those nagging problems that regular employees have often just worked around, been too busy to correct or not even identified.

In fact, apprentices often find themselves in a unique position, with many employers giving them the freedom and resources to find time- and money-saving solutions based on what they are learning and to reach out to experts throughout the workplace far beyond an often overworked line manager.


The twin ideas of continuous improvement and succession planning drive many company apprenticeship programmes.

Take, for example, the case of a young improvement technician level 3 apprentice at the semi-conductor maker, EU Diodes. “We were discussing a long-standing technical production problem and suddenly a young apprentice piped up to say he could add an application code to a Raspberry Pi [a low-cost, credit card-sized computer that plugs into a monitor] and fix the problem,” says operations manager David Ogden. “None of us knew what a Raspberry Pi was! After that, the apprentice’s confidence levels shot through the roof.”

Ideas can also spark general changes. Saga’s group programme manager, Susan Clements, says she found networking with other people ‘really helpful’ when she herself took a level 5 management leadership apprenticeship to experience being an apprentice first-hand before organising an imminent level 4 improvement practitioner programme for staff. 

“I liked the idea of a cohort of people meeting together from around the business who would otherwise not necessarily always mix together. We’d lost the impetus in my area for team meetings; they were sporadic and unstructured but, now inspired, I’ve got them back on the agenda and we’ll show and discuss a TED talk, for example, or talk through something we have learnt.”

Offering apprenticeships costs time and money. While many smaller, non-levy-paying employers are calling for a more generous levy allowance before offering apprenticeships, larger levy-paying organisations are seeing the advantages of the levy system for future proofing a quality workforce. 

“It’s been particularly useful in filling skills gaps, such as in our sheet metal-working operation,” says Callum Davidson, learning and development officer at aircraft components manufacturer PCC Aerostructures. “Given the demographic of our workforce, we felt we’d otherwise have an issue in five years’ time in filling some quite difficult roles.”

Davidson admits they have had to make sacrifices to accommodate the 20% off-the-job training rule of levy funding. Apprentices are given two weeks off to complete some of their assignments.

“At the end of each normal working week they attend classes and do on-site learning on a Friday (a short working day for the whole business), work three full days in the workplace, and then have Mondays free for self-directed study (writing assignments or practical project work) based in an apprentice room suite so they are not off the premises entirely.”

Another key consideration before investing in apprenticeships is choice of training provider, whether FE college or independent.

Aside from showing a deep knowledge of your particular industry and all its current issues, a good provider “should not just be trying to sell you an apprenticeship programme but sit down with you, hear your needs and develop a programme around them,” says CMQ T&C’s Andy Cheshire. 

Can the provider give you a scheme of work and show how that will be delivered? How will apprentices be supported, particularly if there is a mix of ability or you have staff who have been away from a learning environment for a long time?

What about governance? How regularly will you meet the provider for updates on progress, attendance and outcomes, and honest discussions? If someone is struggling, who will take responsibility – employer or provider?

Phil Churchill, training and development officer at fresh food producer Bakkavor, says he challenges potential providers about what resources they will offer learners, and the volume and level of assessment undertaken. “It’s also important to know about timing so an employer can support learners when the provider is absent and be able to communicate with the provider when the learner is absent.”

And the acid test? Ask a provider if you can contact their former or existing customers to get their view. The answer could sway you one way or the other.


About the author

Richard Doughty is a freelance (and former Guardian) journalist specialising in education. 


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