Apprenticeships are the only way to hit the bullseye to solve skills crisis

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Charlie Mullins
Charlie Mullins

Founder of Pimlico Plumbers, Charlie Mullins, speaks to Business Leader about the importance of utlising apprenticeships to solve the skills crisis.

If the Government was playing ‘Queen’s Speech Darts’, its aim to hit a ‘treble twenty’ with its promises for a post-Covid skills overhaul was slightly wide of the mark.

I won’t say they only scored ‘one’ with their throw of the proverbial ‘arra’, because any focus on skills and providing opportunities for people to better themselves is always welcome, but they would have hit top score by concentrating on apprenticeships.

In a year where the Government has thrown pound note after pound note at the pandemic to try and keep businesses afloat with things like bounce back loans, its solution to the skills crisis is very much in the same vein.

The Prime Minister’s planned skills revolution will be supported by loans for adults wanting to retrain as part of a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’.  This will allow adults to get a ‘flexible loan’ for higher education and training at university and colleges.

The loan can be used at any point in their lives and will provide up to four years’ study for full or part time courses.

We’ll get to find out more in the Skills and Post-Education Bill, which is due out next week, but it sounds to me like another way of over complicating a problem that could be solved by a common-sense answer that will arm people, of whatever age, with the skills businesses actually need.

The apprenticeship model of practical, workplace-based training mixed with college or training provider-led education, is proven to be an effective way of getting people into work.  Apprenticeships are focused on young people, but the model is easily replicable to help adults who want to, or need to, retrain.

However, it’s regularly been slated as a second-class route through education, particularly through the Tony Blair years where it was about university at all costs.

That belief changed under the coalition and then the Tories, but the disaster of the Apprenticeship Levy, has set vocational learning back years and put businesses at risk due to a lack of take up.

Recent figures from the CIPD showed that nearly £2bn of employers’ levy funds expired and was returned to the Treasury between May 2019 and March 2021.

The Levy has seen apprenticeships starts fall consistently since its introduction, which is not only frustrating from an employer’s perspective, but incredibly sad for all the young people who are missing out on opportunities to take the first step on the career ladder.

The only way to solve this is by giving employers funding direct so they can pay the wages of the apprentices with the rest of the cash going to training providers to administer and validate apprenticeships.   It’s the way forward I’ve advocated for years. It’s simple and would be effective.

After all, it was less than a year ago that Boris Johnson promised an apprenticeship place for every young person in the country.  It would have been a no-brainer to put them front and centre in the Queen’s Speech and make this retraining offer a back-up scheme for those who desperately need it, rather than being at the heart of how we skill the population.

The fact that the Government believes that the lifetime skills guarantee will help target local needs in sectors including construction, digital, clean energy and manufacturing, just goes to prove that apprenticeships are the better choice.

These sectors have either been built on apprenticeships or are prime for using the vocational route.

So why create another layer of bureaucracy? Just fix the apprenticeship model and scrap the levy.

Perhaps we’ll find out more when the Bill is published, but I have a feeling that we’re still some way off from the Government hitting the bullseye that will solve the skills crisis.

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