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Are Apprenticeships the answer to addressing the Skills Gap?

9 February 2024

Apprenticeships are experiencing an increase in popularity as an effective pathway to professional development and skill acquisition. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s recent Autumn Statement announced the government’s plans to inject £50 million into a two-year pilot scheme with the aim of boosting apprenticeship training in sectors which contribute to economic growth. With the first ever NHS doctor apprenticeship commencing in September 2024, apprenticeships are transforming the modern workplace, combatting barriers to entry in traditionally exclusive industries, and creating accessible pathways for aspiring professionals. So, are apprenticeships successfully bridging the skills gap between education and employment, and what are the legal considerations when it comes to sponsoring an apprentice?

In celebration of National Apprenticeship Week, Jag Taak, Solicitor Apprentice at Loch Law, explores this evolving dynamic.

From Classroom to Career:

At the heart of the apprenticeship model lies a symbiotic relationship between theoretical learning and practical application. On-the-job learning allows apprentices to gain industry-specific knowledge, developing key skills and benefitting from workplace mentorship. The fusion of classroom learning, and practical experience equips apprentices with skills directly applicable in their chosen field, ensuring they are up to date with knowledge and expertise in line with current market demands, essential for success in today’s competitive job market.

Many apprenticeships offer generous salaries to entice skilled workers, aligning financial incentives and professional development. From 1 April 2024, the increase in the national minimum wage will see apprentice wages increase by 21.2%, to £6.40 per hour, further enhancing the attractiveness of apprenticeships as viable career paths. The ability to earn while you learn is particularly attractive in the current climate, where it is reported by the Student Loans Company that students graduating from universities in England are estimated to have incurred an average of £44,940 in student debt. This has spurred the shift in attitudes in wanting to support the development and growth of apprenticeships in the UK, allowing employers to champion social mobility, and benefit from government funding to drive cost-effective workforce development.

Launching careers sooner than more traditional university routes, where students typically spend years studying before applying for entry level roles, apprenticeships can play a pivotal role in stimulating career progression. Employers value loyalty and proficiency of internally trained staff, often prioritising them for promotions. This addresses the skills gap by cultivating a pool of skilled professionals ready to assume leadership roles and drive innovation in their respective industries. The Department for Education’s (DfE) Apprenticeship Evaluation Employer Survey highlighted that, ‘7 in 10 businesses retain their completer apprentices’ with those providing apprenticeships at Level 4 or 5 being ‘more likely to retain all of their completer apprentices’. Consequently, fostering supportive learning environments and offering pathways for advancement can enhance employee retention and avoid the costly cycle of recruitment and training new staff.

Nevertheless, challenges persist in realising the full potential of apprenticeships to bridge the skills gap, with 35% of students previously interested in completing an apprenticeship saying they were ‘prevented from doing so due to a lack of roles in their desired career’. Other barriers including apprenticeship misconceptions, inadequate funding, and limited awareness among employers and prospective apprentices, hinders widespread adoption and uptake. Addressing these barriers requires a combined effort from stakeholders across government, industry, and education to promote the value of apprenticeships, expand access to high quality training, and incentivise employer engagement. So, what measures are being introduced?

Closing the Gap:

Using the recently announced £50 million investment, the government plans on offsetting high costs of equipment and training facilities that may prevent some employers from offering high quality apprenticeships. The pilot scheme is due to commence in Spring 2024, and plans to target sectors which contribute to economic growth, such as engineering and manufacturing. The scheme will be implemented alongside the existing Apprenticeship Levy, which has been a ‘magnet for criticism’ since its introduction in 2017. While the levy was intended to encourage 600,000 new apprenticeship starts each year, the average has been closer to 300,000 and with an estimated £3.3 billion of levy funding going unused, some critics suggest that it is nothing more than a ‘toll’4 for employers whose revenue exceeds £3 million annually. There seems to be a consensus among HR professionals, including CIPD’s Senior Policy Adviser, Lizzie Crowley, that despite the impact of the apprenticeship levy, ‘skills and labour shortages continue to be a real problem across the UK and all sectors of the economy’. It will therefore be interesting to see if the government’s investment is able to address the inflexibility of the current levy, which has been so heavily urged for reform.

UCAS, the service that facilitates all UK based university applications, plans on expanding its service by advertising apprenticeship opportunities alongside traditional undergraduate degrees. The plan to make the service a one-stop-shop will showcase the value of apprenticeships as credible alternatives to higher education, assisting in breaking down societal perceptions to prioritise academic pathways over vocational training. The NHS’ Medical Doctor Degree Apprenticeship, set to start in September 2024, is part of the NHS’ Long Term Workforce Plan, which ‘will see the biggest expansion of training in its history to help upskill, retain talent and create a healthcare workforce fit for the future’. Discount retailer, Aldi, has also recently announced plans on creating up to 500 apprenticeship roles across the UK, with the supermarket’s UK Learning and Development Director, Lisa Murphy, celebrating that the ‘apprentices of today are the leaders of tomorrow’.

Whilst these measures are being introduced to promote and enhance the delivery of apprenticeships, employers are also faced with significant legal obligations when it comes to sponsoring an apprentice and playing their part in bridging the skills gap.

 

Sponsoring an Apprentice:

Navigating the regulatory framework around sponsoring an apprentice is paramount. Whilst there is legislation mandating clear guidelines for apprenticeship agreements, wages, and working conditions, it is crucial for sponsors to uphold training standards set out by regulatory bodies and industry guidelines. These safeguard the rights of apprentices, integrity of apprenticeship programmes, and mitigate the risk of funding being withdrawn for non-compliance.

The target demographic for apprenticeships, those aged between 16 and 24, introduces various considerations for employers with respect to their duty of care and promotion of equal opportunities. Employers have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment to all their employees. Whilst the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) confirms that in most cases, employers, ‘have the same health and safety responsibilities for apprentices of all ages’, employers must consider that for some of their employees, it may be their first time in a working environment, and therefore factor in additional training requirements where necessary.

Apprenticeships can present challenges when it comes to recruitment due to the risk of direct and indirect discrimination. Employers may be tempted to place age limits on apprenticeship applicants because government funding is tiered according to age, with greater funding being allocated to the target demographic. However, such an approach could directly discriminate against older applicants. It is equally important for employers to consider whether the terms offered to apprentices are consistent with other employees of similar qualification and length of service to avoid potential indirect discrimination. As apprentices are likely to be younger than the rest of the workforce, employers must take steps to ensure their practices are objectively justified. By promoting employee wellbeing, equal opportunities, and non-discriminatory practices, employers not only fulfil their legal obligations, but also foster cultures of equality, diversity, and inclusion.

Striking a Balance:

The rise in apprenticeships has undeniably brought about a shift in attitudes in addressing the skills gap in the UK. The government’s Autumn Statement serves as a significant example of this shift, highlighting the need to promote the value of apprenticeships, expand access to high quality training, and incentivise employer engagement.

As the modern workplace continues to adapt to accommodate apprenticeships as credible alternatives to higher education, the expansion of UCAS to advertise apprenticeships reinforce positive attitudes to tackle the stigma surrounding the work-based programmes and bridge the gap from education to employment.

As we navigate these changes, it is crucial to strike a balance which empowers employers to implement high quality apprenticeship programmes, fostering a culture of transparency, fairness, and inclusivity, while ensuring apprentices are afforded a platform to thrive.

 

 

 

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