I’m passionate about apprenticeships because of the way they bring people into the workforce through a combination of practical experience and learning. Consequently, the bad news in the media about the effects of the pandemic on the employment market in general – and apprenticeships in particular – has been beyond depressing.
When I started researching this article, the news seemed unremittingly bad. I read the Sutton Trust report Covid-19 Impacts: Apprenticeships and almost gave up. Then I talked to employers, learning providers and professionals working directly with apprentices. The picture is far from rosy – but neither is it totally grey.
First the bad news. Business closures and furlough have hit apprentices as hard as other employees and had an adverse effect on apprentice recruitment. According to the Apprenticeships and Traineeships, England: August 2020 Report from the Department for Education, there were 53,530 apprenticeship starts between 23 March and 31 July 2020, a decrease of 47.2 per cent on the same period in the previous year. Gillian Keegan, Under Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, is on record as saying that her “biggest worry is the recruitment of new apprentices”.
So, is there any good news? In a word, yes. New initiatives are being rolled out at an unprecedented rate. They may not solve everyone’s problems but they do offer constructive help, particularly to careers leaders who are looking for ways to bolster their students’ spirits. Let’s take a look at some of the developments.
Apprenticeships are evolving
Employers are getting creative in delivering learning and practical experience remotely. E-learning, online communication platforms and remote working are developing fast as companies seek new ways to continue working. This isn’t only in the science and tech industries but in management, customer service, healthcare and other disciplines.
Employers are being incentivised
A fall of 7% in the number of apprenticeships starts was recorded in the first half of 2019/20 – before anyone had heard of Covid-19 – so declining opportunities was already on the agenda. The government is now offering incentive payments to employers who take on apprentices. As Yvonne Emerson from North Yorkshire Business and Enterprise Partnership states, “The challenge is always in finding vacancies, but we’re seeing new opportunities emerge because of new funding initiatives. There was already a problem but there are signs of recovery.”
In June 2020, the government announced Kickstart to help provide high-quality employment opportunities to thousands of young jobseekers across the country. The £2 billion scheme aims to create new six-month job placements with local employers across England, Scotland and Wales for young people aged 16–24 years old who are currently on Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment.
Industry is innovating
Among the employers I talked to, commitment to providing and supporting apprenticeships remains as strong as ever. They are aware of the need for a diverse workforce and conscious that this period of slowdown in recruitment could negatively affect their long-term prosperity, so are actively seeking ways to support apprentices and to widen their recruitment net.
Robert Watts, European Apprenticeship and Talent Program Manager for Covance Laboratories and Head of Science Industry Apprenticeships, provided invaluable information about how industry can both respond and innovate to meet the current challenges. “Science and healthcare have traditionally looked to employ high-level graduates but we’re moving away from that. We’re looking at new ways to support more inclusive careers’ journeys, including supported internships and extending careers opportunities for those with disabilities.’
Support for those in apprenticeships
Government regulations are a nightmare to navigate but they cover breaks and extensions in apprenticeships, furlough, changes in end-point assessments and a raft of other areas. The TUC provides a comprehensive overview and seems to be pretty good at staying up to date.
Learning and information support are improving
Learning provision is big business and there is no shortage of resources online. The problem is finding impartial, balanced information that offers practical help to careers leaders who want to support their students.
Yvonne Emerson highlights positive developments in offering support. ‘The commitment to providing apprenticeships is as strong as ever. The Apprenticeship Support and Knowledge for Schools and Colleges programme (ASK) has been quick to mobilise and is reaching out to more people.’
The ASK programme, funded by the National Apprenticeship Service, offers free support to educational establishments across England. Amazing Apprenticeships, its communication channel, coordinates and facilitates the programme by connecting schools, colleges and training providers. Careers leaders can request support and be put in contact with local delivery partners who can offer targeted resources. This is particularly important; the ‘local contact’ element helps careers leaders to keep their finger on the pulse in their area and to gain up-to-date information about apprenticeship vacancies and training.
Robert Watts was particularly helpful in providing information about web resources for careers leaders, young people and parents. He recommended Embracing Future Potential, a one-stop shop for providing information and guidance to those who have ‘fallen through the cracks’ in the economy. It has a dedicated section on employing an apprentice, as well as information on careers with disabilities and developing students. I checked it out; it is accessible, comprehensive and it isn’t pushing an agenda or trying to sell something.
Time to learn
For years, employers have been pointing out that new recruits often lack ‘soft skills’. They may have technical or academic knowledge but they don’t know much about how to function in a working environment. Many new recruits (of all ages) lack the ability to communicate effectively and to be part of a team.
Another shortfall is in functional, transferable skills. Organisations need recruits with solid literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. Applicants for apprenticeships or jobs who are confident in these areas put themselves streets ahead of the competition. Now that many of us are stuck at home, there is an opportunity to enhance these skills.
In April 2020, the government launched The Skills Toolkit to help people learn new skills and improve their CVs. Working with partner learning providers, including The Open University, FutureLearn, Google and Amazon, free online courses are available in subjects ranging from practical maths to computer science and coding, and from personal growth and wellbeing to professional development.
My heart goes out to young people who are about to embark on their careers. It’s useless to point out that we’ve come through high unemployment and economic downturns before; when you’re young what matters is now, today, not what happened in the past or what will happen next year. However, there is help out there for both them and you, the careers leaders who give them such valuable help.
Careers leaders resources
Here are a few websites that can offer help, more information and learning resources:
1 TUC – employees’ rights and responsibilities.
2 New government regulations and guidance
3 Kickstart Scheme
4 Targeted information and support
Embracing Future Potential – a network of websites that encourage employment, inclusion and opportunities through information, support and connections.
Apprenticeship Support and Knowledge for Schools and Colleges programme (ASK) – funded by the National Apprenticeship Service and gives free support to educational establishments across England.
The Skills Toolkit – material to support practical and functional skills development.
Local Enterprise Partnerships – 38 local hubs. I’m not a fan of their main website – it’s woefully out of date – but the key word here is ‘local’. They can put you in touch with your regional organisations who will offer targeted information and help.
Karen Holmes is a qualified teacher and experienced writer, specialising in education, management and training. She has written several careers books, as well as articles for magazines and journals on careers development.