With Brexit on everyone’s minds, there’s lots of concerned chat among business leaders about addressing skills shortages. But at the same time, fewer businesses are taking on apprentices. In fact, the latest figures show a 34 per cent drop in apprenticeship starts.
It’s a worrying trend. Work-based learning opportunities have so many benefits – for individuals wanting to get into the workplace, for employers looking to plug skills gaps and for the UK economy as a whole, helping to give us a competitively skilled workforce.
This recent lack of engagement from businesses comes down to confusion about the Apprenticeship Levy – part of the government’s plan to increase the quality of apprenticeships and fund three million places for apprentices by 2020.
There were mixed reactions when it was announced and, over a year later, it’s still giving business owners a headache. It’s too complicated, too much of an upheaval, it’s a further tax on my business, it’s taking away money from other staff training, it’s not worth it.
All of this negative perception around the levy is massively overshadowing the many advantages of apprenticeships.
For young people, apprenticeships offer a solid alternative to university education, providing a structured, hands-on, training environment to earn and learn at the same time. They can give people at the very start of their career the confidence they need to thrive and succeed. They’re not just for young people either – apprenticeships can also offer older age groups the chance to upskill and get ahead in the workplace.
For businesses, hiring apprentices boosts morale, with other staff able to see their company investing in its future; it’s good for staff retention, with a tendency among apprentices to stay committed to the company they’ve trained with, and it diversifies workforces, offering a fresh perspective from new talent.
The levy applies to employers with an annual wage bill of over £3 million – businesses with a bill less than this don’t have to pay. Even if they’re liable to pay the levy, all firms are eligible for government funding that can offset costs, and it can in fact be used to train existing employees, not just to hire new ones.
Attempting to navigate the system can feel overwhelming but it really is worthwhile. If you’re a business owner, don’t just assume that apprenticeships aren’t right for your company or that they cost too much. Many companies have been able to make the levy work for them. If you haven’t got the time to get your head around how it all works, then engage with someone who does.
If you’re considering an apprenticeship as a way of getting employment, don’t be put off by the figures. There are still lots of businesses offering apprenticeships and continued debate about the subject means that the government has been making some tweaks to the system, such as more flexibility for large employers. In the West Midlands, the government has just agreed a skills deal, which could unlock as much as £69 million for training, including hundreds of new apprenticeships – something that could be replicated in the north, perhaps?
With Brexit looming, it’s time to get serious plugging the skills gap – but how can we do that if we’re not harnessing new talent? We need to encourage businesses to get back on board with apprenticeships to help create a competitively skilled workforce fit for the future.
Jamie MacGregor is managing director of Bolton-based training provider Bright Direction (@bright_DT, facebook.com/brightdirectiontraining)