As evidenced by the skills and equalities minister, Nick Boles recently, 70% of employers offering apprenticeships have improved the productivity of the business as a result. So there is huge amount of talent at stake.
The government is proposing changes to the programme, which could potentially reduce the number of apprenticeships that companies are able offer to young people, as a consequence of greater responsibility for recruitment and training being placed with employers. This could mean that businesses will miss out on a huge amount of potential.
How the land lies
When a business wants to take on apprentices the funding and logistics involved are channelled through providers, removing the burden from already-stretched businesses and HR teams. However, as has been the subject of a recent Education Select Committee, the government is proposing plans to shift these responsibilities further towards the business community, both financially and logistically.
The broad premise of the government’s proposals is correct. Business should be involved in setting up the new scheme, laying down the parameters of what will constitute success and how the initiative will be rolled out. A collaborative approach will mean that any policy agreed upon will be suited to UK businesses and the targets laid out by the government will be achievable. However, by passing most of the responsibility for funding over to individual businesses, it could be risking the great progress being made by so many young people undertaking apprenticeships in the UK.
My concern is that this policy change could be analogous to the change in the education system in 2011 when responsibility for careers guidance was switched from the Connexions network to schools, on the understanding that schools were best placed to offer the service. It didn’t work. One ‘patchy’ service was replaced by another less impartial, more fragmented service. The change resulted in millions of students missing out on informed, relevant careers advice and has been criticised by the Education Select Committee, Ofsted and the CBI.
Many businesses simply can't afford to pay for training costs up front, so will rely on being refunded based on results. It is not practical. Neither will companies have the resources to make the logistical arrangements necessary to employ a young trainee or apprentice. As a result, we could see firms overlooking apprentices and UK business missing out on harnessing a significant amount of potential.
A way forward
Employers, the government and education authorities must work together to ensure that young people from all backgrounds have the chance to gain meaningful employment. HR departments need to understand how the apprenticeship scheme is going to be funded and organised, in order to keep a steady flow of job opportunities open to the employees of the future.
For this to happen, we need to see a clear, practical policy from government as to how apprenticeships will be funded and the business community's role in it. Without this clarity and support, employers alone can’t be expected to take on the responsibility of nurturing the next generation. Collaboration, consultancy and co-operation will be vital.
Michael Mercieca is chief executive of Young Enterprise, the UK’s leading enterprise and financial education charity