The UK Government is reforming technical education, putting in place new employer-led technical qualifications to run alongside A-Levels. The new qualifications will sit within 15 pathways that group together related occupations requiring similar skills, knowledge and behaviours, which will be further broken down into occupational specialisms. The study programmes will be at Level 3, last approximately 2 years, and contain a substantial work placement of up to three months. The first wave are scheduled for roll out from 2020 with all qualifications available from 2023.

These reforms are highly welcome. The UK has a substantial gap – relative to other countries – in the provision of intermediate technical skills which T Levels, if they are successful, could help fill. We also know from our research that employers often complain about the work readiness of young people. These new qualifications, which aim to provide the behavioural and occupational competencies, alongside real experience of the world of work through a structured work placement, will help bridge the gap between education and the workplace.

Yet, there are a number of hurdles to be overcome of these qualifications are to prove successful, and not go the same way as the 14-19 diplomas initiative which suffered from low levels of take-up and were discontinued after a few years. In particular, our research has highlighted the following two areas:

1. Raise awareness

Our recent survey of 2,000 employers suggests that raising employer awareness of the new qualifications is urgently required – particularly if they are to be ready to offer a work placement in two years’ time. We found that only 40% of employers had heard of T-Levels and of those who had heard of them, the majority rated their level of knowledge of the new qualifications as fairly poor (46%) or very poor (18%).

Getting employers on board with the reforms and the potential benefits they will bring is absolutely critical to the success of the reforms. If employers are going to be ready to deliver high quality work placements, urgent work is required from Government to raise their level of awareness and build the business case engagement.

2. Rethink the work placement

The new study programmes require a work placement of a minimum of 45 days. However, our research shows that a third of businesses do not currently provide any work placements for young people at the moment, and the majority (62%) of those that do only offer of 15 days or less with longer length placements targeted at university graduates.

When asked about the feasibility of providing a 45 day placement for a T-level student the majority of employers stated that this would not be feasible. Overall, just a quarter of employers thought that they would be able to provide a placement of a minimum of 45 days in duration, with a further 22% responding that it would be feasible but that they would require some type of financial incentive to do so. A larger proportion of smaller firms, in particular, reported that it would not be possible.

If Government wants to press ahead with work placements as currently proposed, it will need to ensure adequate co-ordination, support and guidance are available for employers to help them offer T-Level work placements. Alongside this it may be necessary to consider whether financial incentives may be appropriate to increase employer engagement with work placements, particularly for SMEs.

Despite the challenges this raises, it is very encouraging to see that many employers are, in principle, highly supportive of the reforms. Employer responses indicate that they feel they will have a beneficial effect on young people’s employability, and there are early indications of a willingness to recruit young people who have been through this route. Interestingly, the survey data also suggests that employers would value breadth over depth in terms of the skills young people gain from T Levels, preferring employability skills and a broad understanding of their sector rather than specialist skills and knowledge required for specific vacancies.

If these new qualifications are to be a success, it’s essential that employers are aware of and on board with the reforms. The work placement is a key component to successful delivery but it’s also crucial that they recognise the value and opportunity in harnessing this new source of talent, this will be the real litmus test for success or failure of this new qualification.

About the author

Lizzie Crowley, Senior Policy Adviser - Skills

Lizzie is a policy and research professional with over 13 years’ experience in the employment and skills arena, having worked with both the public and private sector to develop high-quality research to inform organisational practice, public policy and shape the public debate.

Prior to joining the CIPD Lizzie led The Work Foundation's research and policy development on the youth labour market – and has published a number of influential reports on youth unemployment. She has regularly appeared on national and regional TV and radio, including BBC Breakfast, BBC the One Show, the Today Programme and Channel 4 news. Lizzie graduated in Sociology and has a master's degree in Social Science Research Methods, both from the University of Glasgow.

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