Apprenticeships: It’s easy when you know how

Posted on 19 Sep 2012 by The Manufacturer

The Holt Review showed that SMEs across the UK feel cut off from apprenticeship provision by a lack of information and lack of confidence in quality. TM assesses how much this rings true for the manufacturing sector.

National Apprenticeship Week earlier this year announced that 457,000 people started an apprenticeship in the academic year 2010/11, a stonking 63% increase on the previous year.

But, for those with a vested interest in making theUKskills base for manufacturing more robust, is this figure the cause for celebration it first seems?

Scratching the surface of the headline announcements show the increase in manufacturing and engineering apprenticeships was a more modest 29%.

Furthermore, while industry big guns like BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens – the ‘usual suspects’ as one industry commentator observed to TM – can lay claim to huge swathes of these recruits, the proportion of British small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) recruiting apprentices is less impressive – just 12-13% of manufacturing and engineering companies in the UK according to manufacturing sector skills council, Semta, which is fighting to double the number of NVQ level 3+ apprentices in the sector, particularly among the SME segment by 2016.

But the current low uptake across sectors is bad news for the UK’s future security in key vocational skills.

So, to discover why the uptake of apprenticeships in SMEs is so low, entrepreneurial jeweller Jason Holt was commissioned by government to review the apprenticeship outlook for SMEs.

Published in late August, Holt’s findings were hardly groundbreaking for those close to the subject. But they formalise and confirm many of the complaints SME employers have made for years: that apprenticeships are neither a respected nor well-promoted career route in schools, that provision is not well regulated and that providers are more empowered than employers so that ownership of training is not in the hands of those who should benefit from its results.

The review suggested ways of overcoming these fallings by rethinking funding structures – like that for the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers (AGE), and increasing the role of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) – a body which many employers never come into direct contact with due to the intervention of training providers, but which is tasked with overall responsibility for increasing the uptake of apprenticeships in the UK.

To read the Holt Review in full click here.

Answering the challenge

Focusing on the manufacturing sector and the particular issues of awareness and quality which Holt raises in his review makes for some interesting observations.

The delivery of bespoke training for a broad range of sub-sectors, company sizes and technology applications is not easy. There is likely to be bureaucracy and complexity in any system which attempts the task. But the key is to hide this complexity from the beneficiaries and ensure that it delivers what they need.

For manufacturing, good attempts have been made to do this. Semta launched its Semta Apprenticeship Service (SAS) about 18-months ago and Cogent, the sector skills council for science-based industries such as chemicals, polymers and nuclear, launched its Technical Apprenticeship Service (TAS) shortly after.

Both these initiatives offer a catch-all service for companies new to apprenticeships. They give assistance in the development of a suitable programme, delivered by approved training providers, and take on the admin costs. All the employer has to pay is the apprentice wage, although TAS, as an Apprentice Training Agency, also takes on payroll responsibilities for companies concerned about their ability to provide long-term employment. Semta is considering doing the same for SAS.

However, perhaps due to underfunded marketing from the sector skills councils or a lack of engagement from employers, the message that these services exist is not getting across. Many SMEs remain unaware of their existence and continue to lack confidence in the apprenticeship delivery system and their ability to navigate it.

Positive experiences

While there are still warts to be removed from the services offered by Semta and Cogent, those who use these bodies as end-to-end apprenticeship training solutions indicate that they tick all the boxes for an SME that is inexperienced in apprenticeships, but keen to offer them.

Linda Millett, Head of HR, Takeda Cambridge

Linda Millett, head of HR at pharmaceutical research company Takeda Cambridge Ltd, praises TAS. “Like many in the pharmaceuticals industry we’ve usually taken on graduates to fulfil our skills needs – getting involved in higher apprenticeships was a hard sell to some. But we found that, while some first class graduates struggle with transferring to the workplace, our apprentice added value very quickly and is already contributing to our drug discovery projects.”

Millett says TAS completely removed the perceived barriers of administrative burdens. “We are very lean on admin support here,” Millett explains. “TAS taking care of everything, right down to payroll, was invaluable. Without TAS we would not have taken on an apprentice.”

But in other manufacturing sectors, including Semta’s, it ought to be easier to sell apprenticeships to SMEs, so they can grow their own talent from the shop floor through to the boardroom.

Gerry Dunne, chairman of the Midlands Assembly Network
Gerry Dunne, Managing Director, Westley Engineering

Gerry Dunne, managing director of Westley Engineering, an EITB-trained apprentice himself, needed no convincing that hiring an apprentice would add value to his business. Although he found his localTamworthCollegeinflexible in arranging an appropriate balance between on- and off-the-job preliminary training for his apprentices.

Unsure who to turn to, Dunne approached his trade body, EEF, who he says put a good scheme together for him, but was then approached by Semta. “Semta offered a similar package to EEF but with more handholding,” he says, a big plus to a busy MD.

“The Semta Apprenticeship Service seems to tick all the boxes for me,” says Mr Dunne. “They can be slow to respond sometimes – but the right system is there.”

What’s the problem?

These accounts show that help is available to SMEs, across wide-ranging skills needs, in setting up appropriate apprenticeship schemes.

So why does the Holt Review claim that employers are confused about the value of apprenticeships and how to go about them?

Signposting is missing, according to Linda Millett who had to dig around before she discovered TAS. “Both Cogent and TAS need to up their game on marketing,” confirms Millett. “I know they are trying – I recently helped them produce a video designed to raise awareness about Higher Apprenticeships in Life Sciences – but there seems a very low awareness among SMEs.”

More money could be made available to promote TAS – and SAS – but Mrs Millet was uninspired by some of the online promotion techniques suggested by Holt. Instead she advocated employer roadshows and mentoring so that those with positive experiences of the high level skills apprentices can bring to an organisation can share them with peers face to face.

Gerry Dunne also wants to see more force put behind apprenticeship marketing campaigns. “It seems to be left to word of mouth,” he says. “If we take this approach it will take years for SMEs to learn that they could have help in addressing skills gaps and by that stage it may be too late.”

Richard Bridgman, chairman of engineering firm Warren Services,

Richard Bridgman, Warren Services
Richard Bridgman, Chairman, Warren Services and Semta Chair for East of England

but also Semta’s regional chair for East of England, is particularly frustrated by the communication challenge hamstringing apprenticeship growth among SMEs.

“It’s not being communicated well enough,” he states, relating how he only found out about SAS himself a few months ago.

“This is a tragedy because skills shortages are holdingUKindustry back and SAS is there ready to provide the solution in exactly the way that hard-pressed, small businesses need. I’ve used it now and seen other employers use it too, and it takes away all the worry that supporting an apprentice can involve.”

Richard Bridgman is now working with Semta to champion SAS outreach and education events for employers. He was instrumental is arranging the SME-only apprenticeships round table due to take place in the House of Lords on November 12, for example. (Find out more about this in TM October)

Big call out

It seems muddled that products like SAS and TAS, which strip away the key barriers of bureaucracy and cost – in time and money – for SMEs apprenticeships, cannot be communicated effectively – even internally.

But, defending Semta’s promotion strategy for SAS, Bill Twigg, apprenticeship director at Semta says, “We are undertaking an active telemarketing campaign which is getting a thirty five per cent success rating. By telemarketing standards this is very good – a success rate of about eighteen per cent is more usual.”

Mr Twigg says that since its launch, SAS has helped around 150 SMEs – mostly in the automotive, aerospace and metals industries.

For further explanation of Semta’s services to help SME’s take on more apprentices see TM’s October edition.

All or nothing

The reviews of SAS from Dunne and Bridgman are positive, as are Semta’s own case studies – available online. But it is only fair to say that this is not the universal experience of manufacturers who have sought to engage with the sector skills council.

The Holt Review criticises the National Apprenticeship Service for focusing too heavily on promoting apprenticeships in big companies in order to hit targets, and suggests that this focus has skewed the attitude to SME engagement from the sector skills councils.

While Semta claims to value SMEs highly in its overall strategy to boost apprenticeships, there are those who admit that this has not always been the reality.

Before his retirement in May, ex-CEO of Semta Philip Whiteman told TM that his priority, as he led Semta from the public to the private sector, had been to create structured employer engagement. The fastest way to achieve this, he said, was by creating a board of CEOs from large companies like BAE Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, GKN, Rolls-Royce and Qinetiq, who had the time and profile to give Semta a firm footing within industry.

Mr Whiteman told TM, “I don’t doubt that our focus on engagement with these companies set us up for challenges in engagement with SMEs. I never quite feel that we cracked that challenge.”

Semta’s Bill Twigg says this is being rectified. “My priority is to provide a complete end-to-end apprenticeship solution to SMEs,” he comments.

This is laudable – but is it putting employers, who might turn to Semta for specific pieces of help in apprenticeship delivery, of from turning to their sector skills council?

Iain Maxted,MDof Wales-based Guardian Global Technologies says, “Semta’s support would be valuable for an SME which had never before run apprenticeships but we have a well-established process which has been in place for several years.”

Taxing Bill Twigg with the idea that Semta was prioritising end-to-end users of SAS over those who needed to dip in for point solutions got the following response.

“Employers are welcome to use any part of the Semta offering – if we are supporting the adoption of apprenticeships in any way then we are doing our job. Some employers like to have autonomy in certain areas of apprenticeship provision and that is their choice, which Semta respects, but our priority is to look after those end-to-end solutions for employers who most need our help.”

Quality before quantity

It is tempting to believe that the difficulties in increasing apprenticeship uptake in SMEs indentified by Holt might be wiped away by one or two targeted advertising campaigns. The fact is that the reports finding are corroborated by stacks of anecdotal evidence and industry survey results show that this is too simplistic.

Constant references in Holt’s report to the need to improve and safeguard the quality of apprenticeship training in the UKraises a critical issue. In April this year Panorama exposed the Morrisons supermarket apprenticeship scandal. This showed how a lack of consensus around what an apprenticeship must include for certain sectors, coupled with opportunistic training providers ready to exploit the availability of funding for their own gain, can undermine a whole education and career development concept.


Bill Twigg, Apprenticeship Director, Semta

Distancing Semta’s efforts from the criticisms raised in the Holt review about regulation and employer education and “what good looks like” in provision, Semta’s Bill Twigg says, “Like many reviews of apprenticeship frameworks the Holt Review was very generic. It represents a broad view of the barriers to uptake across all sectors. We have to remember that this includes industries where apprenticeships have little heritage and where the average length of an apprenticeship often only meets the mandatory minimum of one year. Semta apprenticeships range from three to six years in length and we take our role as a moderator of quality very seriously.”

Semta has around 40 approved training providers on its books with another dozen in the pipeline for approval. The criteria it uses for measuring training quality are in line with Ofsted practices – Semta itself has been rated “Good with outstanding features” by Ofsted.

Ofsted is responsible for the regulation of all training providers in England, and in theory at least, every provider that approaches a company in relation to delivering apprenticeships or work-based training – and their subcontractors –  should have been inspected by Ofsted and issued with a quality grading.

Twigg asserts that this is so, “The good the bad and the ugly all have reviews on the Ofsted website,” he states – despite the fact that the Panorama programme shockingly claimed nearly £250m worth of apprentice training contracts went to large subcontractors in 2011 which have not been inspected by Ofsted.

Furthermore, while Ofsted is a recognised body in school inspections, many in industry would fail to recognise its relevance to apprenticeship training. This leaves a situation in which many employers continue to have damaging encounters with poor quality training providers.

Brian Palmer, Managing Director, Tharsus Engineering

Brain Palmer, managing director at Tharsus Engineering, a Tyne and Wear-based SME, can empathise with this experience. “In the past we had training providers who would recommend inappropriate training for us or encourage trainees to go further at college than they were comfortable with, just because they knew they could access funding at the time,” says Mr Palmer.

Luckily, Tharsus remained committed to the apprenticeship concept but he is now cautious of delegating responsibility for their management. “We do use external providers for the delivery training,” he explains. “But we have an internal owner. I think you have to have someone inside the organisation who is passionate about the apprentice concept and will take ownership of quality to ensure the business benefits and that the apprentice experience of industry is a positive one.”

This desire for ownership in the development of apprenticeship training is echoed in the findings of the Holt Review which explores some ways in which the government might alter apprenticeship funding systems to leverage “emotional ownership” of both funding and delivery in SMEs, reducing the ability of corrupt training providers to act exploitatively.

But for some employers talk of restructuring apprenticeship and

Andrew Esson, managing director at Quick Hydraulics
Andrew Esson, Managing Director, Quick Hydraulics

training delivery – even when the aim is to make it easier – is a distraction. Quick Hydraulics’ Mr Esson says, “I have established apprenticeship scheme in two family run SME manufacturing businesses now and personally, I have always found that the current system works, when you find a good training provider.”

Esson’s view is that, rather than commissioning multiple reviews of delivery mechanisms for apprenticeships, like the Holt Review, and next the Richard Review, government and industry would do better to focus their efforts on “weeding out poor providers.

He also says that, in some cases, the cause of poor quality training is event closer to home. “A critical aspect to apprenticeship quality which is often glossed over is the capability of the employer to provide on-the-job training,” states Esson. “If you don’t get this element right then your apprenticeship scheme will be worthless – whatever the external, official apprenticeship system may be.”


Andrew Esson is speaking at TM’s Manufacturer Directors’ Conference on November 21.

To see the full agenda click here.