Employment has changed considerably in the past 10 years. Greater flexibility, more home working, a rise in self-employment, a decline in traditional retail sectors and the growth of digital have transformed the way we fulfil our working lives. It makes sense that we look at the current apprenticeship models, examine that pattern of change, consider whether our current system is future-proof and where it isn’t, look for creative solutions.

By way of an example, I’d like to share with you a little about the environment in which our own business operates.

As a software provider, we are part of an increasing number of businesses that co-locate in business hubs alongside other like-minded organisations. As business owners, one of our main challenges as we grow is access to skilled people. But taking on an apprentice in a small business can be risky. Perhaps you’ll go out of business – what if you can’t pay them? Have you got enough work to keep them busy? Have you got the time to support them effectively? These are the questions being asked by business owners with integrity: those who, when they take on new staff, see a long-term future for them in their company.

The apprenticeship sector needs to respond to these barriers comprehensively: we need young, dynamic businesses to develop a mindset of seeking apprentices to employ in the same way they seek graduates. We need to meet and work with them during their early stage growth period; we shouldn’t wait until traditional recruitment practices of looking to the nearest undergraduate programme become entrenched. The levy-payer of tomorrow is the small business grappling with the complexity of scaling-up their business today.

Flexible apprenticeships

Perhaps the answer in this circumstance is to revisit how we support employers to share apprentices, opening up access to much-needed capacity for the business while providing a rich programme of (diverse) learning for the apprentice. Presenting opportunities to not one but multiple businesses to have an apprentice is a very exciting and tangible possibility. We already have the basis of such models – apprenticeship training associations – which could be applied more fully to new and evolving sectors if we grasp the chance to reimagine how they can fit.

When coupled with the levy-payers who are often connected to such hubs through formal and informal arrangements, we can potentially unlock some of the cash sitting in some levy-payers’ accounts.

Why? Because the levy is not working hard enough to ensure that young people can fully access the employment market. This must be addressed if any of us are to lay claim to it providing a meaningful return on investment.

Commitment to apprentices

Apprenticeships must be front-of-mind for employers – whatever the size of the business – when they are looking to fill a vacancy. We need to lead the line manager making recruitment decisions more firmly towards apprenticeships as a viable option. In part, this should be through refocusing the levy to require a percentage of the spend to be used on entry recruitment but also through education of employers as to how the levy can be used successfully to bring a return on investment.

I’m often asked, as a business owner, what my most valuable customer type is. I think this is an interesting question from an apprenticeship provider’s perspective. Let me try to answer it. A valuable customer is an employer who puts their money where their mouth is. A valuable employer, therefore, is one who doesn’t just sign a commitment statement but means it: from the beginning to the end of the apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are with the employer for around 80 per cent of the time. A valuable employer is someone who doesn’t forget it, working in partnership with their chosen training provider throughout.

There is evidence that it is harder to deliver quality apprenticeship by looking at the number of providers of apprenticeship provision that receive a “good” Ofsted judgement for “overall provision”, but fall short for their “apprenticeship provision”. It isn’t too much of a stretch, therefore, to recognise the role a challenging employer may play in the latter.

Ultimately, we should be striving to design and operate an apprenticeship system that is of equal value to both employers and apprentices. The litmus test for me with apprentices, rather than focusing on my business, always relates to my own children: would I want them to do an apprenticeship? Ten years ago I’m afraid the answer would have been no.

Now, the answer is a very definite yes, but I have the benefit of knowing exactly how to find good apprentices and the best apprenticeships. My vision, which I suspect is the same as most of you reading this, is that all other business leaders, parents and prospective apprentices can say the same.

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