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BSIA Briefing

by Brian Sims

Ask most people to describe an apprentice and they’ll speak of non-academic, working class 16-year-olds, perhaps a little older, embarking on their first post-school learning by enrolling in a September-term apprenticeship. It’s often taken for granted that an apprenticeship is a youth’s introduction to an employer. Many think of apprentices as young. They believe that only manual trades offer apprenticeships. They guess that employers fund most of the learning and believe that apprenticeships are just for a company’s core skills. In the security sector, for example, this is likely to be the Fire, Emergency and Security Systems apprenticeship, writes Peter Sherry.

Apprenticeships have been with us in some form or other since the Middle Ages and have maintained their popularity well into the 20th Century, gradually falling out of favour in the 1980s. Apprenticeships were re-booted in 1993 as ‘Modern Apprenticeships’, after which point NVQs were introduced and the apprenticeship evolved to embrace new trades, new ways of working and new generations of learners.

Although apprenticeships have changed with time, it seems that – for many – the overriding view of them hasn’t.

Just as change has come to business, so change has come to apprenticeships, and particularly so in the last set of Government overhauls. Many businesses in many sectors have yet to fully get to grips with the significant changes that have occurred which, in many ways, upend our understanding of what an apprenticeship is (or can be).

There is now substantial financial help for organisations, with many apprenticeships being up to 90% funded. Organisations with a wage bill of more than £3 million (that’s less than 2% of UK employers, by the way) are subject to the Apprenticeship Levy of 0.5% of their overall bill. Introduced to encourage larger businesses to invest in apprenticeships, the Apprenticeship Levy fund is flexible. Employers can choose, broadly speaking, how it is spent. It’s even possible for an organisation to establish its own Academy and take control over learning.

Re-training for heightened effectiveness

Today’s apprentices can be any age. Apprenticeships are no longer just for school leavers. Apprenticeships can help the long-term unemployed into work, enable those made redundant from one role to work in another and also help organisations take on people with greater life experience. Companies can even re-skill individuals from within their own business to be apprentices for roles where they can be more effective.

Organisations need many skills. In the security sector, these skills could well be focused on customer service or team leadership. Every company should offer great service to outshine the competition and win the hearts and minds of customers, while polished team leadership goes a long way towards smoother operation and greater profitability. So yes, the security sector’s ‘beating heart’ apprenticeship is Fire, Emergency and Security Systems, but companies wanting the benefits of apprenticed learners across the whole business can place people on team leader/supervisor apprenticeships as well as customer service-centric courses of learning.

Almost half a million learners started an apprenticeship last year, with just a quarter of them being under 19 years of age. Apprenticeships are successful, too Within the same time range, 92% of learners said their career prospects had improved and over 90% either went into work or further training.*

The benefits are not just for learners, either. Employers find that apprentices deliver exactly the skills they need and create a more loyal workforce. They discover that apprenticeships are a highly cost-effective form of training. 

Apprenticeship Levy: the clock is ticking 

April 2017 saw significant changes to the way in which apprenticeships in the UK are funded. Those organisations with a wage bill of over £3 million are now required to pay an Apprenticeship Levy into a digital fund managed by the Education and Skills Funding Agency. The idea was a simple one: to encourage employers to make apprenticeships a bigger part of their skills acquisition process by ensuring that they would put money away for it. Once in the fund, businesses had two years in which to spend it.

One year on from the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, the Open University published the troubling results of it’s analysis of the fund’s status ­in ‘The Apprenticeship Levy: One Year On’. It was discovered that around £1.2 billion of funding was sitting unused. The Open University submitted a Freedom of Information request and found that just £108 million of funds were withdrawn between April 2017 and February this year. Perhaps more worryingly, 40% of business leaders reported treating the Apprenticeship Levy as a tax (which it isn’t), while around 17% of those questioned said they didn’t expect to recoup those funds.

One theory is that organisations are simply treating the Apprenticeship Levy as a tax and are writing it off. This only really makes sense if we assume that those businesses don’t know how they can spend the money. That’s more likely to be the heart of the problem.

In 2017, it wasn’t just that funding changed. Apprenticeships themselves received a fairly substantial overhaul which seems to have resulted in an ‘uptake lag’ while organisations come to terms with what those changes are. For example, apprentices can now be pretty much of any age. While this opens up terrific opportunities for organisations to re-skill current and more senior employees, it also enables them to fish in a wider resource pool.

While we can understand that this kind of change – to name but one – can take time to embrace, the bigger challenge is how this is communicated to the outside world. An outside world where the perception of the apprentice is that of a young adult taking on a trade skill. How do you create an induction message that resonates with a more mature audience and doesn’t make them feel like this is last-ditch ‘sympathy’ training for ‘over-the-hill’ individuals?

Talk of ‘valid apprenticeships’

Challenges such as these are not trivial and cannot be solved quickly. From our conversations with employers, it’s clear that many organisations have yet to fully identify these issues, let alone create a pathway towards resolving them. In the example cited, many employers just don’t yet perceive that training older team members is a ‘valid apprenticeship’.

While this makes the underspend seem like an employer problem, let’s be clear that there are enough issues to go around. For example, while it’s theoretically possible for the Apprenticeship Levy to be spent on ‘different types of apprenticeships’, there’s some confusion as to when this is a ‘real apprenticeship’ and when it’s ‘spending apprenticeship money on training’ (even within Government departments). Rules can be enforced in perhaps too hard and fast a way, which means that the goal of broadening just what an apprenticeship can be is one nigh on impossible to meet. Plus, there’s good old red tape. It really hasn’t lessened, and with so much change to apprenticeship programmes, that red tape is potentially as hard to navigate now as it has always been, if not harder.

The clock is ticking on the ever-diminishing remaining portion of the two-year funding window. While accepting that we’re just a year into some of the biggest reforms in apprenticeships ever undertaken, it’s clear that organisations could do with hastening their activity. Otherwise, the money they’ve put aside ­will evaporate. Let’s not ignore the smaller organisations who don’t pay into the Levy fund, either. They may well not be facing the same deadline, but they’re most certainly missing out on the same opportunities.

Helping business to understand change

Peter Sherry

Peter Sherry

Skills for Security’s role is to help security businesses understand these changes and then re-orientate the way they undertake apprenticeships in the most effective manner. This can be different for each organisation. Some organisations (usually those of the larger variety) may choose to establish their own Academy and take greater control over apprenticeship programmes (yes, this can be done), although they would be as regulated as any third party provider. Setting up the Academy would itself be no trivial matter. Others may need to assess their apprenticeship needs against their next few years’ learning and development plans. There isn’t one solution, then, even though there’s one problem.

What’s clear is that doing nothing advantages no-one. While there are some calls for improvements, it’s unlikely that these will happen soon (if at all). The Government is well aware that the changes were going to take time. Better to see how things go than tweak programmes part way.

In the meantime, organisations in the security business sector really do need to move towards embracing these changes, otherwise both money and opportunity will simply slip away from their grasp.

Peter Sherry is CEO of Skills for Security and Chair of the Skills Working Group at the Security Industry Authority

Security businesses wishing to discuss apprenticeships should contact Peter Sherry at Skills for Security by sending an e-mail to: info@skillsforsecurity.org.uk

*Source: Education & Skills Funding Agency

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