· 2 min read · Features

If apprenticeships are the solution, don't create more problems

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At this years' political party conferences, skills and training were the topics of the hour.

It’s great that politicians are catching on to what the HR world has known for ages: if businesses invest in people, they invest in the future of their companies and industries. Last year employers spent £43 billion on skills and training – an amount that’s only going to grow with the improving economy. After all, that’s how you retain the best employees and meet the ever-changing needs of industry. Businesses that commit to quality training will seem much more attractive to potential recruits. 

Filling gaps 

So how can apprenticeships help fill skills gaps? Firstly they make a lot of business sense; according to the National Apprenticeship Service the average apprentice improves business productivity by £214 per week. You’re able to mould an apprentice into exactly what your company needs, effectively creating a custom-made employee. Apprentices also bring a host of other benefits, such as improved staff morale and retention – HR’s dream! 

Make it easy 

Stability is crucial. We have a strong system in place, but too often it has to endure the endless chopping and changing of government. If politicians must make changes, they might consider three things:

  • Get the framework right
  • Include employers in policy-making
  • Make it easy on businesses 

There’s no point in having huge numbers of apprenticeships if they don’t lead anywhere – each one needs to deliver real skills that lead to a job. The danger of pushing for high targets is that quality could suffer. So instead of focusing solely on headline-grabbing numbers, government should ask how apprenticeships could better meet the needs of businesses and help to fill the skills gaps they face. 

Employers are the best people to match skills to jobs, and that’s why they should play a bigger role in developing the apprenticeship frameworks. After all, they know exactly what they’re looking for in a candidate. But they can’t be expected to bear that burden alone. As part of the autumn statement, George Osborne announced a new £40 million apprenticeship scheme aimed at putting employers in the driving seat. The idea is to let companies take control of all planning and training, then claim back expenses from government.

That’s fine in theory, but will employers have the time to take that on, or even want to? Instead of giving employers all the responsibility, policymakers and providers should still play a part. That way, businesses can be involved without being weighed down by administration. 

Cut the red tape

If the process of taking on apprentices involves lots of admin it will only put employers off. It can be even worse for smaller businesses, which may not have the internal resources to recruit, train and pay more for apprentices. That’s why Vince Cable’s proposal to increase apprenticeship wages could backfire in a big way. The raise seems perfectly reasonable, but could it discourage already-stretched companies that can barely afford the current apprentice pay? That means they’ll have to take on fewer young people, which is obviously the last thing politicians want. 

Most employers see the benefits of offering apprenticeships, but too many are put off by government red tape. That’s why any new policies should make it easier, not harder, to hire young people. If the government can get the formula right, apprenticeships will close business skills gaps and won’t create more work for HR – now wouldn’t that be a dream come true?

Matt Johnson is managing director of City & Guilds Kineo