Apprenticeships continue to be a hotly debated topic. Policy developments such as the apprenticeship levy, funded by employers with annual paybills in excess of £3m to create apprenticeships, have drawn companies into intense conversations with Westminster. With the world of work rapidly changing, it’s the perfect time to take stock of the role apprentices play in the workforce, and how training can be improved. The New Statesman and BAE Systems hosted a group of industry experts and decision-makers at the company’s state-of-the-art Academy for Skills & Knowledge in Samlesbury, Lancashire, to discuss the future of apprenticeships.
Mark Hendrick, Labour MP for Preston, kicked off the discussion. A former apprentice, Hendrick has a personal interest in the field. “I’ve been very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had, and I would love to see more people, particularly from poorer and working class backgrounds, have a similar degree of social mobility.” He was eager to understand the steps being taken to create a more inclusive workforce, including the recruitment of disabled apprentices and young people from deprived backgrounds.
Citing his experience training in Germany as a young engineer, he raised concerns over Brexit; “that ability for a person like me to go and work in another country might be threatened with Brexit”. Finally, he was interested to gain insight from the group into how government could work more closely with industry when it came to training, more in the style of Germany.
Representing BAE Systems, David Holmes, manufacturing director of the company’s aircraft business, and Mark Donnelly, apprenticeships & skills manager, talked about the work the company is doing in the apprenticeships area, and the steps being taken to foster a more diverse workforce. Currently the company has 2,000 apprentices “in learning”, 27 per cent of whom are female (up from 13 per cent) and 15 per cent of whom have a learning difficulty and/or disability. Hendrick asked about rates of BAME apprentices, to which Donnelly reported it was 4.7 per cent, up from 3.5 per cent, a percentage they are working to increase, particularly in areas with a higher BAME population.
The BAE Systems apprenticeship programme has a 95 per cent success rate. “There are a significant number of directors and managing directors who have come through the apprenticeship programme,” he explained. “We need a rich tapestry of people, including those apprentices that will continue to excel in their trade over a long time.”
Holmes also acknowledged the need to intercept young people earlier on, before they get to the decision-making age of 15/16, to foster an interest in apprentices as a credible and beneficial career path.
Christiane Rogerson, a BAE Systems final year apprentice has set up a programme called “bio-mimicry” for 6-8 year olds, educating them about STEM by looking at how nature inspires engineers. “Our aim isn’t to inspire them about the company, or conventional engineering. It’s just trying to inspire them about STEM,” she explained. The programme helps to shift preconceptions that children may have formed about STEM subjects as unexciting or overly complicated.
“These preconceptions are formed at a very early age,” said Lynne Livesey, pro vice chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire. “There is an issue of branding,” argued Dr Konstantinos Salonitis, course director for engineering competence at Cranfield University. “We have to make apprenticeships stand out.”
Claire Jameson, business development director at Blackpool and Flyde College, highlighted the role of family, especially in former industrial areas where there may be high rates of unemployment. For example, “[doing an apprenticeship] impacts a family’s benefits.”
“When you’ve got family that are perhaps second generation unemployed, they don’t have the support mechanisms to understand the pressure to study, to work. We found sometimes people drop out,” agreed Barbara Livesey, director of training and apprenticeships at Nelson and Colne College. Indeed, Christiane Rogerson cited “parental support” as crucial to her pursuing an apprenticeship.
The chair asked the group why there is a decline in the number of apprentices. Although the overall rate of decline has slowed, a drop of 27 per cent in starters between August and October 2017 is still worrying, he argued.
Claire Jameson highlighted the levy and the introduction of 10 per cent contribution from SMEs (with 50 employers or more) for apprenticeships. These up-front costs, although expected to produce dividends for employers down the line, are suspected to be putting companies off.
Dr Michele Lawty-Jones, director of the Lancashire Skills Hub, warned against taking the data at face value: “what we’ve seen for the first time is a double peak”. A peak in numbers is always recognisable in August/September when students are enrolled, but last year “because of the levy and 10 per cent contribution, in April we saw [another] massive peak, where providers were working with SMEs to get [apprentices] on board before the contribution came in play,” meaning that the Autumn peak was less than expected. She argued that the numbers may settle with a return to “one peak”.
Despite the upheaval, many around the table believed that recent policy developments were ultimately a good thing, providing more funding for improved apprenticeships. “I would say we’re in a better place than we’ve ever been in terms of cash for apprenticeships,” declared Anthony Knowles, head of national accounts (North) at the National Apprenticeship Service. “For years employers had to see their apprentices do elements of apprenticeships which were irrelevant to their business and that’s gone away now,” said Barbara Livesey.
However, Professor Angus Laing, dean of Lancaster University Management School, argued there was too much insecurity. “There’s too much change [in policy]. What’s the impact on the organisations which have to engage with it?” Lynne Livesey agreed that communication around the levy was lacking; “you need to show the difference it’s going to make, otherwise they’re just going to look at it as a tax.”
Concluding the discussion, David Holmes reiterated the value of these trainees – “apprentices at BAE Systems are highly prized, much sought after individuals … [we’d like] more of them, please.” Mark Hendrick congratulated BAE Systems on being an example to other firms in this area. Christiane Rogerson implored all present to keep championing apprentices like herself. “People out there need support and guidance to get into a career that will probably be forever. It is life changing.”