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The salvation army: Our companies need you

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The government is hoping to draft in a raft of apprentices to get more people into the workforce and plug the widening skills gap in the UK. But is this the right way to fight company shortfalls? Louise Druce investigates.


As ‘Apprenticeship Week’ draws to a close, is your business any closer to realising the benefits that trainees can have in the workplace? If the government is to be believed, this new model army could be part of the answer to the UK skills shortage, as well as encouraging young people not so keen to carry on into higher education to earn while they learn in the workplace.

Forget the notion of Sir Alan Sugar hiring and firing business entrepreneurs hoping to bag lucrative contracts for their talents worth thousand of pounds. The main focus is to offer apprenticeships to school leavers as a very real alternative to other education and training routes that might prove difficult or costly. Trainees learn on-the-job as well as attending a local learning provider (such as a college) on a pre-determined release basis so they can gain practical skills to support their work towards a nationally recognised qualification such as NVQ.

  • 40% of employers picked on the job training as the most effective way to learn at work
  • 81% of employers use on-the-job training and 61% use in-house development programmes
  • 58% of employers say help with training funding would increase levels of contact with public training agencies
  • 50% of employers want agencies to be more responsive and have less bureaucracy
  • Source: CIPD

    It’s certainly not a new idea. Apprenticeships have been around in various guises for decades, with limited success. Image seems to play a part in this, both in terms of marketing and the sorts of people attracted to the schemes, but there has been much discussion amongst employers as to the levels of red tape involved and how much the end qualifications are really worth.

    The latest rebranding follows the much plaudited Leitch report published last year, a skills review setting out ambitious goals to boost literacy and training in workplaces by 2020. It identified apprenticeships as having a key role to play and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) set about helping employers and potential recruits to kick-start programmes in the workplace through the Train to Gain initiative.

    In a further effort to boost recruits, in January the government announced it wanted to see a rise from one in 15 to one in five people on an apprenticeship scheme in 10 years time, increasing the number of places on offer to 16-18-year-olds to 90,000 by 2013.

    Its measures to improve the current system include the creation of a national apprenticeship service, improving the range of apprenticeships, wage subsidies for small businesses, targets for increasing the number of apprentices in the public sector, and the creation of a task force to boost apprenticeships in London.

    To coincide with ‘Apprenticeship Week’, which runs from 25-29 February, the LSC published the results of a survey that made a compelling argument for apprentices. Over three-quarters of respondents felt their apprenticeship programme made them more competitive and that it led to higher productivity. The survey also claimed the outlook for the country’s business could be bleak without apprentices, with 83% of employers relying on them as future skilled workers and two-thirds claiming they would struggle to find trained staff without schemes.

    Furthermore, 80% of bosses believed their apprenticeship programme improved staff retention and turnover, two-thirds said it helped them to fill vacancies more quickly, 88% said it lead to a happier and more motivated workforce and 59% said apprenticeship programmes were more cost effective than hiring skilled staff.

    However, a closer look at the figures revealed that just 204 respondents were interviewed for the survey among the some 130,000 organisations employing apprentices in the UK. So are they really a good way to attract new skills into the workplace?

    “Reform of the apprenticeship system is vital, otherwise the relevance and status of apprenticeships will suffer and more employers will not get involved.”

    John Cridland, Confederation of British Industry

    Attention to detail

    “The hype has lacked the provision,” says John McGurk, learning, training and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “The government is effectively committing to double the number of apprenticeships but the infrastructure just isn’t there and young people have been disappointed. We are also concerned apprenticeships will be re-badged to involve any kind of workplace training, which is going to compromise the goal and the standard of apprenticeships as a form of vocational education.”

    The CIPD does see steps to encourage more employers to take on apprentices as positive but also feels high performance workplaces need to look beyond basic skills, providing staff with access to higher level soft skills training, such as communication and leadership, to remain competitive.

    “Whilst qualifications are important and central to up-skilling employees, they do not automatically make people more productive,” adds McGurk. “Only when skills development is underpinned by good people management such as job appraisals, reward, flexible working and good communication can training be effective.”

  • 80% of employers feel apprenticeships reduce staff turnover
  • 77% of employers believe apprenticeships make them more competitive
  • 76% of employers say apprenticeships provide higher overall productivity
  • Source: Learning and Skills Council

    The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also welcomed the government’s ambition to double the number of apprentices but argued for schemes that would really benefit young people. “The focus must be on quality as well as quantity,” says CBI deputy director-general John Cridland. “Reform of the apprenticeship system is vital, otherwise the relevance and status of apprenticeships will suffer and more employers will not get involved.

    “Setting up a National Apprenticeship Service to deliver and be fully accountable for the programme, and creating a ‘matching’ service to help employers fill apprenticeship vacancies are positive steps. But the government must also address poor quality careers advice, enable apprenticeships to adapt more quickly to firms’ changing skill needs and ensure the way literacy and numeracy skills are taught shows young people their relevance in the workplace.”

    It can be a positive experience, however. Financial services firm Taylor Patterson has put a twist on traditional apprenticeships by offering staff access to a new scheme, in conjunction with Manchester-based Skills Solutions, that could prove a more successful model. So far, the firm has taken on two trainees to study for an 18-24 month course, which will result in a full certificate in financial planning as well as a BTEC qualification.

    “Like many organisations, we were struggling with recruitment and trying to find the right level of qualified staff,” explains Gillian Bardin, managing director of Taylor Patterson. The company was put in touch with Skills Solutions through Train to Gain and is piloting the apprenticeship scheme. So far, Bardin has been pleased with the results. “The apprenticeship gives that rounding and wider experience, rather than us just offering exams to recruits,” she says.

    “Talking to the people we have just taken on, they see it as real value because they have a career path here. We’re investing in them as individuals. It is up to a two-year programme but it doesn’t mean that’s the end of your training. This is the start of a process that could take around five years. We are making that commitment to them and it creates a great talent pool for the company.”

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