Skills and apprenticeships for the post-coronavirus economy

Gathering legislators, experts and industry figures, Spotlight hosted an online round-table event to discuss the progress of apprenticeships since 2015.

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In 2015, the government announced plans to increase apprenticeship starts to 3 million by 2020. The apprenticeship levy, which came into effect in 2017, was meant to help boost uptake. But in the academic year 2018/19, some 72,400 fewer people participated in an apprenticeship than in 2017/18.

A 2019 poll of businesses in London and the North West showed that almost a fifth of firms are failing to spend their full allocation of levy funds.

Beyond providing an alternative professional pathway for young people, apprenticeships benefit employers and the economy as a whole by upskilling the workforce. The country faces skills shortages in key sectors and, in terms of productivity, the UK comes bottom of the G7.

As new jobs are created in tech and green industries, a highly skilled and adaptable workforce is key. With the economic upheaval brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with the disruptive effects of Brexit on the UK’s labour market, these questions are more urgent than ever.

To discuss these issues and more, Spotlight, the New Statesman’s regular policy supplement, organised a virtual round table of legislators from all sides of both Houses of Parliament, as well as industry experts and private sector leaders.

Opening proceedings, the chair, Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of the New Statesman, reiterated the fact that the figures on the most recent academic year showed a drop in the number of apprenticeships available. “The OECD average has around 50 per cent apprenticeship take-up”, he told attendees, “but in the UK it’s only about 30 per cent.”

Jim McMahon MP, shadow transport secretary and officer of the APPG on apprenticeships said that it was a matter of great regret that “we don’t treat apprenticeships with the same respect as we do university-level qualifications” in spite of the fact that “for a lot of working-class communities the apprenticeship route is a way to a great career,” McMahon, the Labour MP for Oldham since 2015, went on to describe his experience as an apprentice for the University of Manchester when he was a young school-leaver. “It was about proper career progression. Not just getting someone on a low wage through the door…. If you want to hit the ground running and build a career, be an apprentice.”

Referring to the economic fallout from the Covid-19 lockdown, McMahon stressed that “he would like to see an increase in capital projects” as part of the recovery, stimulating demand and involving high-skilled jobs in construction, transport and engineering, with ample opportunities for an expansion of apprenticeships in those sectors.

Continuing the discussion, Lisa Cameron MP, officer of the APPGs on apprenticeships and on entrepreneurship, said that many parents were “aware that there was no longer the concept of a job for life anymore... Culturally and psychologically, many parents push their children towards university, thinking that’s the best route to a secure job and future, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case now.” Apprenticeships, she said, can nowadays be far better at equipping people for the labour modern market. Where universities are great at teaching many things, employers appreciate candidates who have hands-on experience and the ability to do, not just think.

Lord Ralph Lucas, officer of the APPG on skills and employment and editor of the Good Schools Guide, struck an optimistic tone, pointing out that there had been vast improvement in the way apprenticeships were viewed in recent years. “Nothing is complete,” Lucas told the round table, “but you are beginning to see a really good uptake for a lot of the better degree-level apprenticeships.” He told guests that many companies were making “a lot of effort” to “promote apprenticeships to people from less well-off backgrounds.”

Offering a unique perspective from the private sector, Jacqui Hall, head of early careers and BioPharma research and development at AstraZeneca, also expressed optimism borne of the positive direction of travel in her industry. “Within life sciences,” she said, “I don’t think the credibility of apprenticeships has ever been stronger… Our apprentices at the moment are identified as key workers. They are keeping the manufacturing side going, keeping supply chains going. There are also experienced lab-based apprentices in the Covid-19 testing centre in Cambridge.”

However, there were issues with the complexity of the apprenticeships framework, which “for SMEs and small companies could be a drain on resources”, making the apprenticeship pathway unviable for many.

Chris Young, education and skills delivery manager for EDF Energy, also spoke on behalf of his own industry, telling attendees that EDF were aspiring to create “over 1000 apprenticeships” at the Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor project in Somerset, of which over 600 had already been created. “The introduction of the apprenticeship levy” had helped, he said “but there’s still a long way to go”.

Eddie Tuttle, director of policy, research and public affairs at the Chartered Institute of Building, described the situation in the construction sector. “A number of people coming into the construction industry through degree apprenticeships will have transferable skills that can be applied in other industries,” he said. “The construction in particular is mostly SMEs… but the feedback I always get from them about the apprenticeship levy is that it’s very difficult to access, not very malleable, and time-consuming, and I think that’s something we should tackle.”

Adding another voice to the broad range of contributions from diverse areas of the private sector, Matt Sinnott, group people & property director at Lloyds Banking Group, gave the view from financial services. “One of the things we can do is enhance the link between schools and employers,” he said. “We’ve had a programme called Lloyds scholars for a number of years, and one of the big successes of that has been helping children from boroughs where we wouldn’t traditionally have sourced financial services employees, and take them onto our apprenticeship programme or graduate programme.”

Daniel Wilson, policy and public affairs director of innovation and trade for BT, focused on the breadth of the level of apprenticeships available in his own organisation. BT, he explained, offered everything, “from call centre apprenticeships all the way through to degree-level apprenticeships, and running through to key workers maintaining broadband networks and rolling out broadband and 5G across the country.”

Wilson continued to highlight the importance of social mobility, and making apprentices aspirational. “Companies have a responsibility to reach out to all parts of the UK. A quarter of our apprentices come from deprived postcodes and we focus on promoting role models within the organisation… Our own managing director was an apprentice, so it’s important it’s promoted at all levels.”

Concluding the conversation, McMahon told attendees that, “the structure of the economy going forward will not be the same as it was before Covid.” He highlighted the important role that apprenticeships will play in any new industrial strategy or in the levelling up agenda. “There’s a real opportunity for the government to think differently,” he said, “and hopefully they’ll see that and start to invest.”

To read Spotlight's most recent Skills and Apprenticeships supplement click here

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