Within the industry we know we can be dynamic, innovative and forward-thinking. But as the recent backlash to the apprenticeship levy highlights, businesses like ours continue to face hurdles that are blocking our full growth potential.
In response to economic and political uncertainty, our sector should be focusing on boosting productivity through automation and digitisation. Instead, we are playing a recruitment waiting game fuelled by a major blocker in the apprenticeship levy process: the approval of standards.
At United Living, we saw the apprenticeship levy as a chance to address the skills shortage and to attract people into the sector – particularly school-leavers. We still feel this way but a year on, it’s difficult to see how anything has really changed. One of the biggest issues is the delay in approving degree-level apprenticeships.
For school-leavers, apprenticeships provide young people with the opportunity to join a business straight from school, enabling them to gain practical experience while studying for their degree. Yet we are still waiting for four degree-apprenticeship standards to be signed off following last year’s implementation of the levy, which is preventing individuals from starting on these vital pathways.
We are not alone in our frustrations. Business schools, for example, are having to delay courses as they have been unable to sign up apprentices paid for by the levy.
The process is not helped by the fact that both the national apprenticeship standard and the assessment plan must first be approved, and then a funding band assigned from a government that continues to shift both its people and policies.
In the meantime, we can’t sit back and do nothing, so we are implementing our own internal learning opportunities to bridge the gap while we wait. National Apprenticeship Week (5-9 March) can provide the impetus to resolve the situation. We want to be able to go into schools knowing we can use the apprenticeship levy in the way we had planned to sell the proposition of a career in our industry.
The challenges to deliver effective apprenticeships should also be considered in a regional context, playing to the strengths of our city-regions especially.
As such, the Northern Powerhouse Skills report launched last week may prove to be a trailblazer for some exciting new approaches. It calls on every northern business to mentor or reach out to at least the same number of young people as they have employees. This would see almost 900,000 given experience of work. It also recommends improving the application system for all post-16 opportunities – including apprentices – so that the best minds can be retained in the region.
These are tangible recommendations that could be replicated elsewhere in the UK, but for such ideas to gain traction and work effectively, they need the apprenticeship levy to reach its full potential.
Businesses have a 24-month window to claim back any levy. The clock is more than ticking and we desperately need more pace and less frustration.
If nothing changes, construction will continue to be stuck in a skills rut, unable to move at the pace we need to drive growth. Improving the approval process must be a priority for all those involved, otherwise we will continue to play a waiting game where the opportunities remain frustratingly out of reach.