The apprenticeship levy was introduced to tackle declining employer investment in training in the UK. Yet employer investment has continued to stagnate and the number of apprenticeships has fallen. While apprenticeships are an asset to any organisation, they are only one aspect of workforce development. As such, we’re calling for the apprenticeship levy to include accredited training aligned to industrial strategy priorities, while supporting government reforms towards an employer-led system with standards demonstrating occupational competency.

The situation

The UK has suffered a long-term and substantial decline in employer investment in training over the past few decades. The government’s introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017 aimed to address this by spurring the increase of both the quantity and quality of apprenticeships, as well as employer spending on training.

Yet, the evidence to date is that the levy is failing in its original aims. The overall number of apprenticeships is falling, especially with young people, and the decline in broader workforce training has also continued.

The current system is not sufficiently providing an accessible pathway to work for young people, with most apprenticeship places going to existing employees and older apprentices. This is compounded by a bureaucratic and inflexible levy, which is not tailored to employers’ skills requirements.

Furthermore, the proliferation of apprenticeship standards has raised concerns over the number of narrow and/or overlapping standards which lack occupational breadth and restrict the extent to which apprentices gain transferable skills.

CIPD viewpoint

Apprenticeships are an asset to any organisation and bring significant benefits to businesses, individuals and the wider economy. At their best they provide a structured route into the labour market for young people, enabling them to progress in their careers and, at the same time, providing employers with a motivated and engaged workforce with the technical skills they need.

In England, the extent to which apprenticeships are supporting the transition from education to work for young people raises concerns. Currently, two-thirds of apprenticeships are going to existing employees and individuals aged over 19, meaning the role apprenticeships should have as a route into employment for young people is not being fulfilled.

These challenges are compounded by an inflexible apprenticeship levy which forces employers to consider apprenticeships as a way of delivering all forms of workplace training. While apprenticeships are an important and valuable form of training for many people and businesses, they are also rigid and expensive programmes that don’t always meet employers’ skills or workforce development demand. As such, the CIPD is calling for a broadening of the levy into a wider training levy, to include other forms of accredited training that are aligned to industrial strategy priorities.

The CIPD supports recent UK Government reforms towards a more employer-led system with standards demonstrating occupational competency. However, we view with caution the rapid rise in the number of new apprenticeship standards and the implications about their quality.

Currently, there are almost 670 new apprenticeship standards approved for delivery and many more under development. This compares to just 200 apprenticeship occupations in Austria, 320 in Germany, 230 in Switzerland and just 100 in Denmark.

This rapid proliferation raises concerns over narrow and/or overlapping standards which lack occupational breadth and restrict the extent to which apprentices gain transferable skills.

Actions for the UK Government

The CIPD is asking that:

  • The UK Government’s Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) should remove any narrow and overlapping standards, ensuring that core and transferable skills are embedded in a consistent way and described using an agreed common language.
  • The UK Government should reinstate the requirement for apprenticeship standards to include a qualification, membership of professional body, or a licence to practise.
  • The UK Government should develop an apprenticeship access fund along the lines of the Higher Education Access Fund to target and support disadvantaged young people.
  • To ensure that the apprenticeship levy leads to an overall increase in employer training effort, the levy should be adapted into a more flexible skills levy.

Recommendations for employers

  • Apprenticeships should be integrated into workforce planning and aligned with business need and growth strategies.
  • Apprenticeships should be targeted at areas where there are clearly identified skills gaps and shortages or future areas of growth.
  • Apprenticeships should offer a training route to a skilled role. Employers should invest in high-quality apprenticeships which provide the most value to both the individual and the employer. The minimum for an apprenticeship is 12 months; however, most high-quality apprenticeships take longer to complete, sometimes up to four years.
  • Recruitment strategies should aim to maximise equality and diversity in apprenticeship programmes.
  • Employers should do due diligence when choosing a provider. Getting a quality training provider is critical in ensuring off-the-job training elements match an organisation’s needs while being both job-specific and transferable.
  • Employers should provide practical support and guidance, including regular meetings with line managers and additional mentors, to support apprentices and apprenticeships.

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