The apprenticeship landscape has seen a lot of changes in recent years, with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, the move from frameworks to standards and the inclusion of end-point assessments (EPA).
As a learning provider, we think it’s important to understand what has and hasn’t worked across the apprenticeship sector, what the current state of apprenticeships looks like, and what the apprenticeship landscape in 2020 has in store.
We spoke to Melanie Nicholson, Executive Director of Excellence, Apprenticeships and Skills at Seetec Outsource, to gain an insight into the current and future apprenticeship landscape and to understand Seetec Outsource’s approach to addressing challenges, maximising opportunities and delivering solutions.
What has been the impact of the apprenticeship levy and other reforms, including the move from frameworks to standards?
“In the last couple of years, we’ve seen some of the biggest changes to the apprenticeship industry in over a decade. Initially, these changes had a detrimental effect on apprenticeship start volumes, with a huge reduction in starts in the first 12 months following the introduction of the apprenticeship levy.
“In recent months, start volumes have slowly been increasing, but I still don’t think we’re where we used to be. In fact, providers are still noting that lead times from the first discussion with a large levy employer to actual sign-up can be anywhere from 6-9 months.
“Moving from frameworks to standards has also impacted. Creating new curriculums, establishing new learning systems and supporting internal transitions has proven to be a great demand on resources for all providers.
“But there have also been many positives. Employers feel more in control, working with providers to develop bespoke programme content and delivery models relevant to their business. And, providers now work more closely with employers to ensure they can clearly demonstrate return on investment, effective talent development and succession planning.
“Learners also benefit from access to a greater range of programmes relevant to their chosen career path. The new apprenticeship standards are designed to stretch and challenge apprentices – they are gaining new skills related to their employment, not just being accredited for skills they already have.”
Is the government likely to achieve its target of 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020? If not, why?
“It’s unlikely. I believe the trajectory of apprenticeship starts was too slow to take off, and the gap to fill the 2020 target is probably too ambitious now.
“When the levy was first introduced, there was a real lack of understanding among some employers about what the levy could be used for. Some employers took a ‘wait and see’ approach, while others chose to write it off as a tax.
“On top of this, providers are also being hindered by reduced provider non-levy allocations, and many providers are forced to turn away SME employers or refer them to another provider due to a lack of funding.
“There’s also been a real focus on higher-level apprenticeships, with a lot of new standards introduced at level 3 and above. The lack of level 2 standards has had an impact on start volumes, with what would be considered an ‘entry level’ position becoming harder to come by.”
When it comes to implementing successful apprenticeship programmes, what challenges are employers facing?
“The first major hurdle for any employer is choosing the right provider to suit their business. Employers must ensure the provider is an expert in their sector and capable of delivering relevant training at the level required.
“The second, and certainly the most common challenge faced by employers is the 20% off-the-job training requirement. This is where it’s the role of the provider to support employers, explaining what 20% off-the-job entails, whilst helping to break down any misconceptions. For example, training doesn’t always have to take place away from the workplace in a classroom. It can include things like the employer’s staff training, induction programmes, and mentoring sessions, as long as it’s relevant to the apprenticeship standard being delivered.
“Finally, I think the other big challenge for employers has been planning how best to utilise their levy funds in a way that meets business needs and delivers a measurable return on investment. Again, it’s the role of the provider to support the employer by understanding what drives them as a business, and to demonstrate how apprenticeship programmes can be used for workforce development and succession planning.
“Once employers fully understand the impact that apprenticeship programmes can have on their business, they can begin to break down and remove these barriers.”
Do you think there is a lack of information for employers about the levy and how they can utilise it?
“There can never be enough information. We’re still coming across employers who aren’t fully utilising their levy, and some who haven’t touched it yet.
“There is a lot of information out there, but is it in the right place? For some, the levy is the finance director’s responsibility, and for others, it’s their learning & development team or HR director. It’s all about ensuring the right information reaches the right people.
“Of course, there are also employers who still see the levy as a tax and have no intention of spending their funds. For these employers, it’s about providing information that demonstrates a clear return on investment, from having a more dedicated, skilled workforce to enhanced business capabilities.
“Employers that have engaged with the levy are finally seeing apprenticeship programmes as a real benefit that’s helping with staff retention, talent management and succession planning. And apprentices are seeing that their company is invested in them, their skills and their futures, so they become more loyal to the business.
“These employers don’t need convincing. We just need to get over the line with the rest.”
What can be done to create more apprenticeship opportunities for young people?
“This is two-fold for me. Firstly, more level 2 standards need to be developed and made available, so young people can get their foot through the door. Secondly, we need to encourage employers to look at how they can use their levy to attract and support younger individuals into their business.
“But ultimately, there needs to be a realisation that it’s not just about employing somebody to come into the business and complete a level 2 or 3 qualification. It’s about the longevity of that individual, and creating a real career pathway for them with a proper development plan.
“For us at Seetec Outsource, it’s about working with employers on how they can support the leaders of tomorrow. It’s not a case of thinking about what’s happening in the business now, but what will happen in the next 5-10 years, and how apprentices can support that vision.”
Do you think there is enough information for young people about apprenticeships?
“In short, no. I think there’s still a real bias towards college and university education from schools, colleges and even families.
“Apprenticeships are a real option now and should be openly discussed and encouraged more in schools, colleges and even at home. University isn’t always the best option for everyone, and with the vast breadth of apprenticeships out there, it’s a real option for all.”
What is Seetec Outsource’s vision for apprenticeships in 2020 and beyond?
“Seetec Outsource is committed to apprenticeships, and we’ve recently updated our strategy and vision to focus on four very distinctive sectors. We’re not a one-size-fits-all provider, we’re experts in what we do and want to work closely with employers in certain sectors to support their growth and workforce retention.
“We have a clear focus on aviation & logistics, professional services, digital & communications and STEM. We want to be known for these sectors, and will continue to drive performance with our employer partners while ensuring our learners have the best possible learning experience to support them in their future careers.”