What’s the catch?

Posted on 8 Feb 2011 by The Manufacturer

If apprenticeships are so great for business why isn’t everyone providing them? Apprenticeship advocate Ann Watson explains some of the blockers and drivers.

This week National Apprenticeship Week is escalating the skills needs of present and future industry in the UK and providing a wealth of best practice case studies and inspiring apprentice stories. This plethora of good news and celebration is undoubtedly positive, however, it can make it difficult to keep in mind the significant challenge still to be faced in getting more SME employers to take on apprenticeships and in convincing young people that they are a doorway to career opportunity and success.

In this interview Ann Watson, MD of engineering awarding body EAL speaks to The Manufacturer about some of the reasons why blockers still exist to the primacy of apprenticeships as a means for industry training and tries to dispel some of the misconceptions around apprenticeship provision:

TM: What are the major reasons for reluctance among SME employers in taking on apprentices?

AW: I think it boils down to either a lack of knowledge on the value of apprentices to a business, or a lack of money to invest.

A lot of SMEs have not been helped to understand what an apprenticeship involves from their side, simply because this hasn’t been communicated to them.

Financially speaking, SMEs are the companies most affected by any economic turbulence, so investing in an initiative like taking on an apprentice takes a lot of consideration and is heavily impacted by the business’ financial position at the time..

When talking about SMEs and apprenticeships we also must recognise the role that day release plays in an apprenticeship. Generally, an apprentice needs to attend their learning institute for one day a week or be released for blocks of learning time throughout the year. This is crucial for them to undertake their classroom based learning but can create a drain on the company’s resources.

Whilst a lot of SMEs who don’t train apprentices recognise the importance of apprentices to their industry, many will be very concerned about whether they have the resources to train someone and take them away from the business for a fifth of the working week. Also, in small firms, the time to mentor can be scarce; and what is an apprenticeship without the on-the-job experience gained under the watchful eyes of a qualified operative/technician?

TM: If a company finds itself unable to support an apprentice mid-way through their training can EAL help them find a new employer to complete their training with?

AW: If an employer is unable to support an apprentice and needs to find them an alternative placement the best advice we could give would be to direct them to the National Apprenticeship Service (www.apprenticeships.org.uk ), which can help with the relocation of the apprentice. However, relocating an apprentice should always be a last resort. Employers should speak with their training provider or college and look at how they can be better supported.

TM: How do you view EAL’s responsibility to ensure there is a viable employment future for apprentices post qualification?

Most employers who take on apprentices understand their value and they aren’t going invest time and money in training them only to let them go once they’re fully qualified. A manufacturing apprenticeship often takes four years and during this period, the apprentice becomes a vital and valued member of staff. Their skills are aligned to the workings of the organisation they have trained in and the value they can often add is beyond the levels that any employer could expect.

TM: What kinds of return on investment or improvements to business growth/productivity are you able to track with employers who do take on apprenticeships?

You can’t easily evaluate the value of an apprentice in terms of figures and balance sheets. An apprentice is a strategic investment on behalf of the business, and is more of a holistic investment than something you expect to see returns from in pounds and pence. However, we are conducting some research on this which will come out in the near future, and will be happy to share this with you.

TM: Are career prospects for apprenticeships currently higher than those for graduates? Is there a difference in the type of career opportunities apprenticeships open up in comparison to degrees?

You can’t really compare like for like as a degree and an apprenticeship require different skill sets, although both qualifications can easily pave the way to the boardroom. It is not uncommon for apprentices to rise through the ranks and take up the mantle as captains of industry.

Neither option offers a better opportunity than the other; what apprenticeships offer in addition to the classroom based learning is valuable work-experience where learners under take practical application of their learning. We have seen some cases where an apprenticeship can act as a springboard for further training, with some apprentices going on to do degrees, but equally there are some firms who get graduates applying for apprenticeship positions.

Of course, an apprenticeship does mean that the learner earns a salary and without tuition fees is free from the burden of debt. A skill for life could well prove far more profitable than sitting in a lecture hall for three years!

TM: Do you think government fully understands the challenges involved for small manufacturers when taking on apprentices? What could they do better?

I’m not sure the Government fully understands how apprenticeships in skilled sectors such as Engineering and Manufacturing differ from your less specialist ones like hospitality and hairdressing; although I have no doubt that they value the contribution of Engineering and Manufacturing to economical growth.

The best example of this is the introduction of the Specification of Apprenticeship Standards for England and Wales (SASE/W). Although it seemed a really positive move on the surface, in reality the lack of understanding of the fundamental skills needed to operate safely and effectively in the engineering and manufacturing industries means that they will suffer as a result of this.

We spoke recently about the loss of the PEO (Performing Engineering Operations) qualification from the Advanced Engineering Apprenticeship and how this means many young people will lose the chance to gain fundamental engineering skills in a safe, off-the-job environment. This could have serious health and safety implications for both learners and businesses, with two fold consequences. As a result, we may put would-be apprentices off a career in the sector, as well dissuading businesses from training apprentices because they aren’t being properly and safely prepared for life in the workplace before they start the practical side of their training.

The employers and colleges we work with are furious about this. Despite what the Government says, the frameworks going forward do not actually reflect what engineering employers need and want. Even worse, every sector is obliged to have an apprenticeship framework based on the same qualification mix. It demolishes the capacity of Sector Skills Councils and awarding organisations to cater for the precise demands of our skilled industry. Skilled industries require training programmes bespoke to their trade and you can’t create that from a framework.

The industries which will drive our economy forward, like manufacturing, require training programmes which fit their needs, and in this case a one size fits all framework cannot apply. In asking us to provide this, the Government is undoing what has made the engineering and manufacturing industries flagship examples of how apprenticeships should be designed and delivered, and potentially damaging the future of the UK’s economy as well as its industry.

TM: Do you think the way that funding is currently distributed for the support of apprentices and the way that apprenticeships are administered is appropriate?

AW: There is no doubt that the Government has backed up its commitment to apprenticeships with a significant amount of funding, but whether this funding is being directed in the way its needed is questionable. The landscape continues to be so confusing that my customers continue to grasp at piecemeal information in a bid to quantify what they will receive for their learners.

My one gripe would be the lack of funding available for adult apprentices. After the age of 24 in this country anyone wanting to do an apprenticeship has to self fund. I can part-understand the rationale behind this, but asking adult apprentices to self fund could put people off from joining this industry and we could miss out on some good workers who could flourish in our sector. Adult apprentices bring a different skill set to the table, bringing their work ethic into the business and a real desire to learn. Stopping funding at 24 is putting the industry at risk of losing people who could potentially bring massive returns to the industry.