Apprenticeships: missed opportunities?

by Mark Rowe

Peter Sherry, pictured, chief executive, Skills for Security, offers an update on apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships have been with us since the Middle Ages – when upper-class parents would send children to live with other families, to learn. In 1563, these often informal but respected arrangements were standardised within a national apprenticeship scheme – ensuring that masters could have no more than three apprentices at any one time, and that apprenticeships couldn’t exceed seven years.

As the industrial revolution took hold, apprenticeships gained a reputation for exploitation, leading to the repeal of the national act, a little over 250 years since its inception. Apprenticeships, however, didn’t lose their popularity. Indeed, training for certain trades, such as engineering or plumbing, became firmly apprentice-driven. At the start of the 1900s, it’s estimated that as many as 340,000 apprentices were learning a trade – and by the 1960s, over 30 per cent of boys became apprentices upon leaving school.

A slow decline

That’s a long pedigree, but apprenticeships fell out of favour after the 1960s, declining slowly but steadily. This was caused by the reduction of the UK’s manufacturing base, declining trade unions, lack of funding, removal of legislation and the subsequent increase in post-16 education. By the early 1980s, there were half the number of apprentices there had been just 15 years before.

The rise of the modern apprenticeship

Apprenticeships were rebooted in 1993, as ‘Modern Apprenticeships’ – after which NVQs were introduced and the apprenticeship evolved to embrace new trades, new ways of working and new generations of learners. But although apprenticeships have changed, it seems that – for many – our view of them hasn’t.

We assume we know what an apprenticeship is. Ask most people to describe an apprentice, they’ll talk 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.

Yet, just as change has come to business, so change has come to apprenticeships – particularly in the last set of government overhauls. Many businesses in many sectors have yet to fully get to grips with significant changes which, in many ways, upend our understanding of what an apprenticeship is, or can be.

Today’s apprentices are different – way different. Let’s start with funding. There’s substantial financial help for organisations, with many apprenticeships being up to 90pc funded. This definitely makes apprenticeships fall into the ‘why would you not?’ category of business investment. Organisations with a pay bill of more than £3m (less than 2pc of UK employers) are subject to the apprenticeship levy of 0.5pc of their pay bill. Introduced to encourage larger businesses to invest in apprenticeships, the 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 control its learning.

Next, on to age. Today’s apprentices can be any age – well, generally any age over 16 and below retirement age. No longer just for school leavers, apprenticeships can help the long-term unemployed into work, enable those made redundant from one role into work in another – and also help organisations take on people with greater life experience. Companies can even reskill people from within their own business, to be apprentices for roles where they can be more effective.

September terms? Also gone. Apprenticeships now start all year round – and why wouldn’t they? New employees are needed all year round.

Apprentices outside of the key trade

Finally, there’s the apprenticeship subject matter. Yes, it’s likely that the majority of an organisation’s apprentices will learn the company’s core trade – but organisations need many skills. In the security sector these could be – for example – 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 onto Team Leader/Supervisor apprenticeships and Customer Service apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships are at record levels. Almost half a million learners (491,300) started an apprenticeship in the 2016–2017 academic year. Amazingly, just 24.6pc (121,250) were under 19 (Source: Education & Skills Funding Agency). Apprenticeships are successful – within the same time-range, 92pc of learners said their career prospects had improved and over 90pc either went into work or further training.

The benefits aren’t just for learners. 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.

Apprenticeships are back – with a bang. Yet many employers, and some entire sectors, aren’t up to speed with recent changes – changes which could revolutionise how they benefit from apprenticeships and take advance of new twists on one of the oldest, most recognised forms of workplace learning.

Security firms wishing to discuss apprenticeships should contact Peter Sherry at Skills for Security: website and email [email protected]

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