How is the Apprenticeship Levy changing perceptions of apprenticeships?
UK apprenticeships are getting a major face lift this year. In order to meet the government's ambitious plan to train 3 million new apprentices by 2020, the entire funding system is being redesigned, training standards are being rewritten and, as a consequence, the value placed on apprenticeships is being rethought.
Recently there's been a reported change in how young people and their parents view apprenticeships, with a greater number advocating the training method. But since the announcement of the upcoming Apprenticeship Levy it seems a significant number of employers are not quite ready to jump on the bandwagon. With apprenticeships back in the spotlight, the usual stigma surrounding the limitations of apprenticeships has reared its head, with employers asking the same questions: Aren't they just for school-leavers?; Aren't they just for practical labour jobs?; Aren't they secondary to degrees? The answer to all these questions is a resounding no: and it's hoped that the introduction of the levy is finally going to make people not only remember the answers, but stop asking the questions in the first place.
Too old to train?
A major barrier to companies fully embracing the potential of the Apprenticeship Levy is the preconception that apprentices can only be entry-level school leavers. From the outset, it's important to reiterate that this is wrong: apprenticeships are open to people of any age. The government knows some employers will prefer to take on apprentices with more experience in the workplace, or to train existing employees for new roles. This is why it is offering additional funding for companies who take on 16-18 year olds - to help maintain the balance.
We should also bear in mind that some individuals may be deterred from applying for an apprenticeship in the first place, because they feel they are too old or are put off by the connotations of inexperience that come with an apprentice title. The interpretation of the word needs to fully evolve if both individuals and companies are to make use of the new opportunities the levy will bring.
Another popular myth that needs debunking is that apprentices are only for entry-level roles. In truth, apprentices can be taken on at any career level - which is particularly useful for companies looking to promote existing employees or appoint them to a new role - and invest in their training.
While apprenticeships are traditionally associated with labour-intensive trade industries, such as building or plumbing, this is no longer the case. Apprenticeships have always worked well for physical skills and roles, to enable individuals to learn the trade hands-on, and now companies in other industries see the value in this. While a degree demonstrates significant knowledge in a specific sector or area, it doesn't guarantee the successful practical application of said knowledge, and employers will still need to train new staff to adapt to real-world scenarios.
Apprenticeships are becoming increasingly common in industries such as business, finance and management, as employers better appreciate the benefit of training apprentices in line with their company standards, in the hopes that the investment will result in a fully-trained, full-time employee.
Quality in question
Another perception that needs a rethink is that taking on an apprentice requires a lot of input from a company, in terms of resources and costs, for a low-value output. Adam Harper, Director of Strategy and Professional Standards, AAT discusses: "There is little point having a target for the number of people starting an apprenticeship if many fail to finish (overall almost 30% do fail to complete their apprenticeship). Likewise, what is the point in undertaking an apprenticeship if the apprenticeship completed either holds little real value in the eyes of employers or provides too little by way of transferable skills and knowledge for the individual? Unfortunately, in a small but still significant, number of instances, this remains the case."
Government funding addresses the matter of cost and it's hoped that the potential of forgoing the levy money if it isn't utilised will encourage employers to invest more time and resources in supporting apprentices in a new way, putting them on a par with university graduates. ACCA Chief Executive, Helen Brand, says: “Where employers offer both graduate and apprenticeship entry routes for similar positions they must ensure that all entrants are treated on the same terms (and this should extend to equal remuneration). If apprenticeship and graduate pathways are designed to lead to different entry level grades (levels of seniority) then employers must be transparent about this.”
With regards to the quality of training, apprenticeship standards are being developed by employers across all industries to ensure that apprentices are trained in the skills that employers are looking for, resulting in longer-lasting careers that benefit all parties.
Time to change
The Apprenticeship Levy may have brought uncertainty to some employers, who wonder if apprenticeships are even right for their industries, let alone their companies. But at least it's opened up the discussion. The initiative is forcing companies to rethink the importance of apprenticeships and what they even mean. Apprenticeships aren't limited by age, gender, level or quality anymore - and to make full use of the funding opportunities, companies are going to have to evolve their views once and for all.