2018 Spring statement: HR community reacts

Experts hopeful but cautious about investment pledges on apprenticeships and T-Levels

Chancellor Philip Hammond has pledged to provide more skills support to employers through investments in apprenticeships and T-Levels in his Spring statement.

These plans include investing £500 million into T-Levels – the new technical qualifications that provide an alternative to A-Levels and are set to be introduced in 2020 – as well as £50 million “to help employers prepare for the rollout of placements for T-Level students”.

Hammond said that, as the UK economy evolves, there is a need to ensure the workforce has the right skills.

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)'s chief policy officer Simon Ashworth welcomed the announcements.

“The challenge has always been about where these work placements can take place, and about getting employers to invest in them. With the government investing in this, this should help employers to engage with T-Levels and fill these placements,” he told HR magazine.

However, while agreeing that investment is a positive thing, Caroline Roberts, head of policy, governance and stakeholder recognitions at City & Guilds, said that “employers are so focused on apprenticeships and all the changes happening there, that few fully understand T-Levels”.

“It’s an education issue,” she told HR magazine. “Employers need to be made more aware what the opportunities are with the T-Levels and the skills gaps that they can address.”

The chancellor also addressed ongoing concerns about the apprenticeship levy and reinforced the government’s commitment to deliver three million apprenticeship starts by 2020.

‘We recognise the challenges the new system presents to some small businesses looking to employ an apprentice. So… we will release up to £80 million in funding to support small businesses in engaging apprentices,” he pledged.

This move has been welcomed by many, including Roxanne Stockwell, principal of Pearson College London.

“Our latest research shows that almost half of businesses are experiencing some form of difficulty in recruiting apprentices, so the chancellor’s £80 million of funding to help SMEs tackle this challenge is welcome news," she told HR magazine. "The sector will now be waiting to see how this will be spent."

She added: “Using the funding to establish new mechanisms to bring SMEs in on the design and delivery of courses could be one priority. From my experience this demystifies the process for employers and ensures the courses are what are truly needed by employers.

"Diversity of employer involvement in apprenticeships is crucial," she added. "In the long term direct involvement by SMEs means that they are more likely to buy into the aims and value of the apprenticeship programme.”

But Linda Kennedy-McCarthy, group HR director of SIG, warned that “while this announcement is positive, what isn’t clear is the impact that Brexit is going to have on all of this”.

She added that while “the investment in apprenticeships is better than nothing, there is not enough being done to address the skills shortages at the non-apprentice level”.

On the government’s National Retraining Scheme, first announced in the 2017 Autumn Budget, Hammond said the first meeting between the government and its scheme partners (the CBI and the TUC) took place last week and would “prepare the British people for a better future ahead”.

This announcement comes as a new report from Campaign for Learning and Northern Council for Further Education warned that the scheme must be adult-led rather than employer-led. Otherwise 'millions of adults of working age would miss out; such as workers on zero-hours contracts, temporary and agency workers who tend to receive less employer training, as well as the self-employed and the unemployed,' according to the report.

Noticeably absent from Hammond's Spring statement was any reference toautomation in the workplace.

“The fourth industrial revolution and automation, and how they are changing the nature of work, are such big opportunities and concerns for employers and employees today and so I’m surprised this wasn’t addressed,” said Grace Mehanna, campaign director for employment and skills at Business in the Community (BITC).

“However, the apprenticeship levy is going some way to addressing this in terms of developing the skills needed as these changes occur,” she added.

IR35 for the private sector also received no mention in the statement. "Regarding IR35, no news isn't necessarily good news,” commented Seb Maley, CEO of contractor tax advisor Qdos Contractor.

“We still await the findings from the IR35 consultation, which should shed light on possible plans for reform. The sooner this is made public the better for each party in the supply chain."