Apprenticeships: yesterday, today and tomorrow

Apprenticeships have always been the bedrock of bringing young people on into new careers with specific training structures. This has to be applauded and recognised as an opportunity, particularly those who may not have the chance of expensive further and higher education. 

The government has promised that there will be 3 million apprentices by 2020, which on the surface sounds good. How we get there is different matter. Instead of encouraging employers of all sizes to participate in the development of these workers, they decided that we could not be trusted and implemented a punitive measure of levy to workplaces that has a pay bill of over £3m per annum.  The levy, set at 0.5%, will be deducted and held in digital accounts. Just to put this into context this equates to circa £450m being taken away from NHS England alone. 

To get this money back you will have to take on an apprentice and the training and education will come from this levy. This does not include the wages; they will have to come out of existing funding. To properly train any individual they should be considered as supernumerary. By now you should be seeing a slight flaw in this plan. The NHS is being starved of money. The Health Education England budget, which was just shy of £5bn, has been decimated. And, the bursary that was in place for nurses, AHPs and Pharmacists has now been taken away. As black holes go, this is a big one. 

So, what do these apprenticeships take place for? To be fair a lot of work has been achieved, but so much more needs to be done. Health is a huge and extremely varied employer. If you look at healthcare science on a standalone basis, there are over 50 different professions. This is not taking into account the variations in clinical, medical, clerical and facilities provision. The variation of trades and professions are almost endless. The question is what apprenticeships are in place to help people on these career pathways? The current answer is, not enough.

As earlier stated a lot of good work has been done, but this does not help the employers in the here and now.  Targets have been set by the government for a specific number of apprenticeships to be in place and up and running. This year’s target is around 23,000. Now, with a limited number of options in regards to apprenticeship training programmes, the choices available means that the bulk of the workload will have to be picked up by a narrow range of professions. These being mainly roles associated with administration and HCAs, but not exclusively. In a few years’ time there will be a greater option, meaning the mentorship and development will be easier to achieve as the responsibilities will be shared.   

If an employer does not fulfil their apprenticeship numbers they will, obviously, not be spending all of their levy deduction. There is no refund. Instead the money will go to other employers who do not contribute to the levy. In health the net winners are, for example, GP surgeries. They can access this funding and put apprentices through their training. 

The apprenticeship programme has been running for a while now with trailblazers being used to give an indication of what can be achieved and the enormity of what is ahead of us. Apprenticeships are coming through, but they most certainly do not cover anywhere near enough professions. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future, however, we do have to accept that for the time-being all employers are going to be net losers. In fact the way targets are set (number of posts set compared financial outlay) employers will always be the financial losers. For example, the NHS in England would need to take on circa 45k apprentices to recoup the levy contribution via training funds. Financial parity, in terms of levy contribution, can be achieved by taking on higher quality apprentices (level 6 is at degree level, costing around £27,000 per annum), but wouldn’t meet the target of 23,000 apprentices set for NHS England. This is not forgetting the requirement to pay a wage to all of these (potentially new) recruits. There is a positive to this. The best value way of recouping most of this stealth tax is by training existing staff. Not an ideal solution, but a good way of reducing turnover and increasing retention. This does mean that those in these roles will be guaranteed 20% of their working week as training time (this could be at an HE Institute or just away from the “Shop Floor”). This does also mean that establishment for these colleagues will only be at 80%, rather than the 100% that they were at previously. Do the existing colleagues pick up the work or does the employer take on extra staff? In todays’ financial climate, I think we all know the answer to that! 

It was recently reported in The Guardian that; “Employers and unions have called for a rethink of the government’s apprenticeship policies after a 59% fall in those taking up trainee posts since a new scheme was launched in April.

Just 48,000 people started an apprenticeship in the final three months of the educational year to July 2017, compared with 117,800 in the same period a year before. The biggest drop came in the lowest level “intermediate” apprenticeships, which dived by 75%, compared with a 48% drop in the most advanced training courses.” 

Employers are shying away from this purely on the basis of cost and the complexity of it all. In effect giving the government bags of cash, with no real desire to get any of it back. 

Unite AGS, Tony Burke has raised concerns on our behalf and has said; “It [Unite] had concerns about the lowest grade of apprenticeships and whether these were beneficial.” He added.” that there was a great deal of frustration with the new scheme. Some businesses view this as a disaster. The levy has made things more complex so they are not taking apprentices on,”

So, what does tomorrow hold for us? There are two options. The government sees sense and re-evaluates the whole programme, maintaining a commitment to training a workforce for the future. Or pigheadedly carries on with its punitive deduction on employers and denying a generation of developing a trade. 

It’s the Tories, I think we all know the answer.