Apprenticeships - A Route out of Recession?
By Kate Shoesmith
In times of economic downturn, apprenticeships are put forward as a panacea, both to the employer offering an apprenticeship and to the prospective apprentice. Some of the research around apprenticeships has already been explored in a CSD briefing note, which aims to introduce the topic. But with an upcoming general election in the UK, we have an opportunity to think about how the next government – whoever forms it – can develop a coherent apprenticeship programme that makes sense to businesses.
Apprenticeships are a key election promise for most political parties. The Liberal Democrats have pledged to support apprenticeships by fully funding off-the-job training costs. This month, as part of their education manifesto, the Conservatives have announced a commitment to “…fund 400,000 new apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship, college and other training places over two years”.
Likewise, and as initially signalled by the Leitch Review of Skills, the Government has promised that there will be 500,000 UK apprenticeships by 2020, 400,000 of which will be in England. They have also pledged that by 2013, all suitable 16 to 18 year-olds who would like to take an apprenticeship should be found a place.
The current message to employers is clear – training, including apprenticeships, should not be sacrificed during times of economic decline. What marks out this recent upsurge in apprenticeships from times past is the fact that these ‘messages’ are disseminated at all. As the researchers Fuller & Unwin have noted, policy makers are, for the first time in the UK, the drivers behind apprenticeships, rather than employers.
Employer driven provision
The groundwork laid by the Leitch Review of Skills, which argued for a demand-led approach, has obviously been very important. Leitch signalled that to be successful, apprenticeships need to be employer driven. The aspiration can be applauded, but can something that is directed from the centre of government ever be truly demand led? Statistics demonstrate that the number of apprentices is on the increase. This is, however, only one facet of ‘demand’.
At a summit to discuss apprenticeships in Scotland last year, employer representatives from across the private and public sector stated that it would be difficult to increase apprenticeships during the recession, despite the government message. And in a survey of its members in 2009, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that one quarter would have to reduce their commitment to apprenticeships during this downturn.
This does not mean we should simply stop supporting apprenticeships. In fact, now is precisely the time when policy makers can make a real difference. Rather than tinkering around the edges with the rudiments of the apprenticeship process, policy makers should leave the detail up to the experts – the employer and training provider – and focus on supporting employer investment in apprenticeships.
In addition to some of the short-term targeted initiatives, such as the National Apprenticeship Service’s commitment to fund employers in England up to £2,500 for taking on new young apprentices , we need to think more broadly if apprenticeships are to work for more employers. At a seminar run by CSD last year, a group of delegates heard from employers working with apprentices in the UK and in Switzerland. I chaired this seminar and we were, rightly, cross examined on why the presentations focused on the experiences of larger companies. The reason, of course, was that the larger companies we invited were actively engaged in apprenticeship programmes, they had several years of experience in delivery, and they had time and resources to devote to their apprentices and to attend seminars such as ours. But it led us to think about how exactly all this learning could better support smaller businesses.
Last October’s joint announcement from the Labour Party and the Federation of Small Businesses is a good start – promising 10,000 ‘skilled internships’ in SMEs – but it is only a start. Again, rather than relying on governments to direct this process, we should be facilitating arrangements whereby the largest and most active apprenticeship supporters can share their experiences with smaller businesses. Facilitating such conversations and providing clear, jargon-free messages, is something that we could all usefully support. It does not mean sacrificing the detail to get those clear messages across, but simply avoiding the use of that indecipherable language of ‘policy’.
Apprenticeships may provide an important contribution to many businesses but this is a decision that every employer has to make on their own. It is not a decision for governments. Governments can best help, particularly during times of recession by providing realistic financial offers and considering other fiscal incentives, such as tax and National Insurance breaks. Handing the initiative back to business has to be the best way to sustain and improve the apprenticeship brand.
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