Devolution of skills funding could revive apprenticeships and get local economies going again, says our board member Caroline Cowburn.

With another 6 months of lockdown restrictions on the horizon, things are unlikely to return to normal any time soon.  If we are to recover economically, we are going to need all the help we can get, and apprenticeships must play an important part.  Yet participation in apprenticeships has been decreasing week on week throughout lockdown, and as businesses make tough decisions on how to align future staffing resources.

Apprenticeships have been transformative and are a win-win for apprentice and employer.  Employers stand to gain from new ideas and approaches that act as a catalyst for potentially transformative ways of working, and they can decide themselves how they wish to invest the apprenticeship levy, according to their specific strategic priorities and skills gaps, and as a result they have access to a continuous pipeline of talent.

For the apprentice themselves, apprenticeships are a credible, challenging and rewarding option for those who choose them.  Learning is carefully planned with an integrated blend of both on and off-the-job elements, providing real-life practical experience underpinned by knowledge and the latest thinking.  Apprentices gain an opportunity to develop skills aligned with the changes and growth in the business, whilst also enabling the acquisition of all-important softer skills to fit in with the organisation’s culture.  Apprentices must deal with high expectations from employers as a paid member of staff – all good preparation for the jobs of the future.

The Chancellor recently announced a jobs support scheme, to replace the furlough scheme which ends in October. This new scheme includes targeted measures to support viable jobs, with the state paying up to £697 towards an employer’s salary. This should allow for apprentices working in these sectors to be further supported over the coming months. Of course, the end of the furlough scheme inevitably means some employers will have to let go of their staff, including apprentices. To address this, the government has put in place unprecedented measures to support apprentices including setting up a dedicated hotline. However more funding is needed to support these apprentices to secure a new opportunity in the same sector. Or if there are none in their current sector, an element of re-training will be required. In this very stressful time, apprentices will need access to information advice and guidance to help them make the right choice.  All associated costs of this should be met by the Government. The Government is already going someway to address this and increasing the number of apprenticeships available by offering generous hiring incentives, giving employers £2000 for each new apprentice under 25 and £1500 for those over 25 that they hire.

Yet still the coronavirus pandemic has severely disrupted the apprenticeship system with providers reported to have missed their pre-coronavirus expectations by 80%. This is particularly concerning as September is typically peak recruitment time for apprenticeships as the latest cohort of school and college leavers make the key transition to the world of work and further study.  If there are not enough apprenticeships available to meet demand, these students will either enroll on a less suitable course or simply drop out of the education system altogether – hardly a step in the right direction in terms of social mobility.

At the University of Bolton, we see apprenticeships as the golden thread that inextricably links the three entities of higher education, further education and work-based learning – not as a form of second-rate education.  We also see apprenticeships as a way of getting our economy moving again, and getting young people back to work in an increasingly uncertain job landscape.

Through the Bolton College and Alliance Learning we have created an education ecosystem for all ages, providing curriculum choices up to postgraduate level and presenting a coherent single offer to employers, ensuring that everything we offer is relevant, provides value and gears people up for the world of work.

The aim is to make it easy for employers to access skills support and navigate the complexity of funding and new initiatives to find the best solution for them.  In delivering the skills for the workforce of the future, employers must be centre-stage and we should listen to their needs and shape our curriculum to provide a ready supply of people with the skills needed for today’s economic revival.

Whether a student is a young person planning their future career for the first time or somebody looking to progress up the career ladder or, as may be increasingly the case, simply wishing to re-skill in new areas to take advantage of the job opportunities of the future created on the back of technological and environmental innovation, the University of Bolton creates progression pathways and lifelong learning opportunities for anyone looking to develop new skills.

By fostering collaborations and partnerships between universities, further education colleges, other education providers and local businesses, we are helping to ensure that the flow of apprentices through the education system, and into employment, meets the needs of the local economy.  All universities should be encouraged to develop these sorts of progressive partnerships in order to offer these advantages to students.

Universities have pivotal roles, acting as anchor institutions within their localities.  They should be central in the development of industrial strategy and in bringing together the key players to catalyse investment in cutting-edge facilities, knowledge and skills.  Skills and industrial strategy should work hand in glove.

To further streamline the apprenticeship system, the government should consider handing much more power to the regions by re-allocating skills and growth funding, as it has already done with adult education funding.  Local authorities and educators know much better than Whitehall what is needed to improve education locally and with control over the post 16 skills and education budget, they will be free to do whatever is necessary to fire up the post-COVID economy, with apprenticeships playing an increasingly vital part.

Despite the plethora of new initiatives and incentives, apprenticeships remain a critical plank in the skills system and should be supported if we want to rescue our ailing economy post-COVID.  Apprenticeships can help put us on the route to recovery, in a world where transformational change is impacting on all aspects of both the economy and society.




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