The second week of February was National Apprenticeship Week, and providers, employers and assessors of apprentices waited with bated breath for the plethora of announcements that would come thick and fast to support the sector and encourage greater uptake of apprenticeships by employers. They were disappointed.
Last month’s celebration of the Government’s flagship training and employment policy was a muted affair, with the DfE concentrating on awareness-raising and success stories rather than solid policies. This happened despite the broad consensus currently shared between policymakers and businesses that apprenticeships can provide a solution to a number of issues created or exacerbated by the pandemic. For instance, they can assist in reducing youth unemployment, and allow businesses to meet the new needs of the economy post-pandemic, by retraining existing staff.
Of course, over the past 12 months, the Government has been tinkering with its apprenticeships policy. Most notably with the introduction of the “opportunity guarantee” in June of last year, in which the Prime Minister promised that every young person who wanted an apprenticeship should get one. This featured a cash handout to employers for every apprentice under 25 that they hire. However, this was widely seen at the time as being not nearly enough to offset the risk employers would be taking on by hiring new staff in such an uncertain time. More broadly, this policy has been accompanied by several other announcements in related areas – kickstart, traineeships, t-levels, vocational training – a veritable scattergun of ideas.
This was crystalised with the Spending Review at the end of last year, and the Skills for Jobs White Paper, announced in January, which proposed a number of structural changes to apprenticeships and other similar policies to make them more flexible for employer needs.
While it is good to see the Government prioritising this area, the lack of focus on any one scheme (of which apprenticeships is the most promising) risks confusing and diluting the impact of their initiatives. Apprenticeships work best when they are part of a pathway from education to employment, bridging the gap from school leavers to full-time employees, with a ramp on and off to ensure individuals are not left out from the next stage of their development.
Apprenticeships are fortunate to have some effective advocates both within Parliament and the sector – and it is time for the Government to work more closely with those who want to utilise apprenticeships, and to remove the stumbling blocks that COVID has put in their way. Training providers and employers of apprentices now have an opportunity to engage constructively in this conversation, and stand to reap the rewards of well-trained, motivated staff while Britain builds back better.