The apprenticeship levy is not perfect; it has been met with a degree of uncertainty from employers as they try to get to grips with the funding system and how to get the best value from their investment.
For many businesses – particularly SMEs who often find it difficult to put money aside to invest in formal training – the introduction of the levy has opened new doors to professional training. This is helping to develop the skills needed to drive their organisations forward and give them a competitive advantage.
Employers are recognising the benefits apprenticeships can bring, but at the moment there are a number of barriers preventing them from embracing apprenticeships. Flexibility in apprenticeship content is by far the largest of these barriers. According to our recent market research on the levy one in three (32%) report this as a significant issue.
A levy that works for everyone
There are risks in creating a training regime where the current needs of large employers in established industries determine how the future skills of the economy are provided. Organisations are currently tied to rigid, centrally-agreed standards without any personalised choices, which means they find it difficult to adapt it to their specific requirements.
This is particularly true of many SMEs, who are concerned that apprenticeship standards have been developed without consideration of their needs. While sector-specific skills are important, small companies need bespoke training that aids their ability to be durable, fast-moving and flexible – they cannot afford to be trapped in a programme that ties them into patterns that have the opposite effect.
With SMEs making up more than 99% of all organisations in the UK this is a segment that cannot be ignored.
The modular solution
Introducing ‘modular apprenticeships’, tailor-made to employers’ needs, maximises the opportunities the levy can bring to organisations of any size, sector or industry.
Even for larger employers the 'one-size-fits-all' model set out by apprenticeship standards falls short, as it doesn’t take into account differences in business models and workers. It's time we thought about a more agile approach to ensure that organisations have access to the skills they need both now and in the future.
Imagine if you could create a course to specifically suit your organisation and staff from a set of Institute for Apprenticeships-approved modules. Employers could pick modules relevant to the specific occupational knowledge they need, combine them with those connected to the soft skills their organisation lacks, add modules built to understand the skills their employees particularly need, and then add any requisite digital skills on top. Together these could combine to form a personalised apprenticeship with the flexibility to evolve as the political, economic and technological environment shifts.
It's an attractive proposition – and one with precedent in the consumer space. One in five of the undergraduate degrees awarded at The Open University are now ‘open degrees’, and they’re becoming increasingly popular. We have the specialism to develop new degree-level apprenticeships based on these popular courses, putting employers back in the driving seat with access to training that suits them and their employees.
David Willet is corporate director at The Open University