Published On: Fri, Feb 13th, 2015

The Apprentice

Neil Robinson looks at the changing landscape for apprenticeships, the traditional entry point for new recruits into the sector

P1000956How would you define an Apprenticeship? The word itself is very old, dating back to as early as 1300AD, having evolved from the Latin ‘Apprenditcius’, meaning to be indentured to a master craftsman in order to learn a skilled trade. Centuries on, the ‘modus operandi’ of the Apprenticeship hasn’t changed but over the last few years, concern has been voiced by many quarters of industry that Apprenticeships generally are a shadow of what they once were. Perhaps it hasn’t helped that various sectors have interpreted the meaning of Apprenticeships in different ways. There seems to be unanimous opinion, however, that there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach in determining what constitutes an Apprenticeship.

The bottom line is that the Apprenticeship scheme is seeing something of a renaissance. Official statistics show that thousands more young people have flocked towards vocational training and the attractive prospect of ‘earning while you’re learning’, rather than heading towards University and accumulating debt before even getting a foot on the career ladder. As the economy strengthens there should be more employment opportunities for apprentices to match this burgeoning demand but just as the momentum starts to build, there is turbulence ahead.

At the end of 2013, the government pulled the plug on loans for people over the age of 24 to do an Apprenticeship, as only 404 applications had been made since the initiative was introduced in April. Politicians had predicted that 25,000 people would apply. Traditionally, Apprenticeships are only eligible to young people aged between 16 and 24, which carry funding for the duration of the apprentice’s training, so the idea of these being open to the adult workforce, provided they paid 50%, clearly did not catch on. At the same time, Chancellor George Osborne announced back then that Apprenticeship funding would, in future, go directly to employers rather than private training providers. This would represent a seismic shift in the way Apprenticeships are managed. As it stands, training providers are responsible for the recruitment, administration, quality assurance and claiming of funding, enabling employers to run their businesses and take on an apprentice without the worry of having to do all the paperwork. In addition, the Chancellor declared that employers would have to make a significant contribution to apprentices’ training costs. Just as businesses are heading away from the recession, the last thing an employer needs is more bureaucracy. There is a very real threat that next year’s reduction in funding for Apprenticeships and a requirement for employers to bear up to a third of the cost of training a young person could bring the shutters down on Apprenticeships. This could have a crippling effect on efforts being made to develop the UK’s skills base and encourage young people to consider learning a skilled trade.

In my own experience of working with numerous small and medium enterprises as well as large firms in the glazing industry, there is simply not the appetite to take on the responsibility of claiming money back from the government and the associated administration. How would this be resourced in terms of staff, for example? I would contend that the vast majority of the sector would disengage completely from vocational training, which would be disastrous.

Apart from the clerical issues, employers would also be subjected to OFSTED inspections if they received direct government financial support. The ramifications are massive for businesses of all sizes and again, it would entail an unwelcome extra burden of red tape. Rather ironically, the government seems to have lost sight of how Apprenticeships are structured and delivered. Training providers are currently responsible for managing 80% of all Apprenticeships in the UK with large employers and further education colleges making up the other 20%. The work of private providers such as 4GE Academy, which understand and care for the sectors they serve, is the main driver behind an increase in applicants. There is an incorrect assumption within political circles that apprentices come forward voluntarily. Recruitment happens at a local level because of relationships that training providers have built up with their employer customers. In short, the future of Apprenticeships is uncertain but for the time being, they are very much alive and kicking. There’s a number of rigorous, high quality, specific routes within the glass and glazing industry and 4GE Academy is committed to engaging businesses in the benefits of this scheme, which are huge.