Apprenticeships should be the foundation of a skills policy for a socially mobile UK workforce.
They should be high quality, at a meaningful level and with opportunities for career progression. They should be available to all who are capable, regardless of background. They should, in short, be a genuine alternative to a costly university system that leaves all-too-many behind.
We’re nowhere near that yet, and the apprenticeship levy hasn’t helped. As Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI told the BBC this week, it’s “a massive lost opportunity… This is the time when we have to get it right.”
The failings of the initiative were not only predictable, but predicted – and now proven.
Last month, representatives from the Institute for Public Policy Research, Sutton Trust and Young Women’s Trust appeared before the Education Select Committee as part of an inquiry into the quality of the apprenticeship delivery.
Their findings indicated the difficulties that young people face, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – not least as a direct result of the levy.
With a target of 3m apprenticeship ‘starts’ – an objectively unhelpful measurement of anything – things got off to a difficult start for the government when the first official post-levy figures saw a dramatic 61 per cent year-on-year fall. The removal of an upper age limit for apprenticeships had the obvious effect too: Sutton Trust’s research estimates two-thirds of the ‘apprenticeships’ that have been taken up are converting existing employee’s skills into qualifications, or further investing in the adult workforce.
This skills-investment is important too, but doesn’t serve a generation of young workers who were ostensibly at the heart of the apprenticeship levy reform, and has created the evident oxymoron of a Level 7 ‘apprenticeship’ – equivalent to a Master’s degree.
This isn’t the fault of business, or the providers of Level 7 apprenticeships. Government policy created that market, and their failure to incentivise firms to engage in the spirit of the levy meant that young people were always going to lose out.
But there is a compelling business case for youth and diversity.
Leadership Through Sport & Business (LTSB) is now in its sixth year of preparing and supporting bright, ambitious young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into accountancy apprenticeships with major firms. Their pre-apprenticeship training programme makes school leavers work-ready, and they’ve gone on to flourish in RSM, EY, Grant Thornton, Nex and over 60 other companies.
It’s a model that works, as Fairbairn herself recognises, speaking at our Women In Finance event last year: “The way forward is partnership: partnership between business, government and crucially also the third sector. The kind of work Leadership Through Sport & Business is doing is absolutely vital, creating new pathways to work. And something we’re particularly excited by at the CBI is the apprenticeship route because I think it does open up new opportunities.”
Michael Spencer, CEO of Nex, has supported the programme since it was founded by former Tradition COO David Pinchin in 2012: “Not only do I view this as the right thing to do, I also recognise the contribution these ambitious young people can make to our business.”
“Nex (and previously Icap) has employed 49 apprentices in total from LTSB in our group finance department. Each year we were able to retain 4 to 6 of the LTSB apprentices, and I am delighted to report that these young people have been able to take on more and more responsibility and continue their professional studies.”
Even those who are not retained – it often comes down to headcount, rather than ability – have the benefit of an incredible start to a career, as Spencer notes: “They’re often scooped up really quickly by other financial service organisations who value the training they have had with Nex and the support they get from LTSB.”
LTSB’s long-term programme makes a lasting difference, but employers need to give non-traditional talent their chance – and critically they must accept the challenge of creating environments in which young people not only contribute, but also develop.