Gillian Keegan MP and Business Leaders talk about the UK skills crisis

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With an acute skills shortage in sectors such as logistics and hospitality, Business Leader wanted to find out more about how apprenticeships and T Level placements will help to alleviate this. The debate also looks at how businesses are utilising apprentices and the different they can make to a business.

To do this, Business Leader brought together a panel that included:

David Byford: Director of Employer Engagement, Strode College
Shaun Grist: Group IT Manager, Wellington Motor Group
Emma Cox: Head of Field Sales, Thatchers Cider
Gillian Keegan MP: Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills
Ingrid Parker: Operations Manager, Harris & Harris
Mell Turford: Director and Chair, GFM

Below are the questions and answers that were put forward to the panel.

Are we seeing more businesses investing in apprenticeships and T Level placements?

Gillian Keegan MP, Minster for Apprenticeships and Skills: “One thing we know is we have big skills shortages in the country, and apprenticeships and traineeships are a way of solving those skill shortages. Because of this, we are seeing them grow again, and we are seeing more and more companies are utilising the incentives that are available. But clearly until we fully unlock aspects of our economy – for example we’ve only just got hospitality fully open again – we’re not going to be able to reach our full potential.

“”The trajectory looks good though and we’re seeing interest from more businesses when it comes to investing in apprentices.”

How do these initiatives help businesses recruit locally?

Gillian Keegan MP: “It’s important that every business in the UK is building a talent pipeline because we’re seeing less talent coming from Europe and this may continue and be further impacted due to the pandemic.

“How can businesses build a talent pipeline? The first thing to do is talk to your local school and college and get involved with the careers hubs, so that the students are aware of your business and your industry.

“You can also invest in T Level Placements because these are about spotting talent at the very beginning and giving young people work experience opportunities. Then there are apprenticeships of course.”

For businesses that may not know, what is a T Level placement?

Gillian Keegan MP: “They are the equivalent to A Levels, and it is something that was introduced last year. They are aimed at young people who want to take on a more technical route as opposed to an academic one at the age of 16.”

Are you seeing more businesses coming to you and wanting to take apprentices invest in traineeships?

David Byford, Director of Employer Engagement at Strode College: “There is a positive outlook towards apprenticeships and T Level Placements amongst our employers, despite the challenges they have been facing. Of course, certain sectors like hospitality are still recovering, but these initiatives can help to fill a skills gap. Brexit is having an impact too on sectors like engineering and businesses within this sector are looking for new skills too. To conclude, we are seeing more businesses and sectors engaging with us and what we can offer.”

If you’re a business that has never taken on an apprentice or invested in a traineeship and they have a perception it’s a lot of work, what is your message to them?

David Byford: “Taking on an apprentice is like a breath of fresh air for a new employer because you bring in new skills, a new attitude, and a fresh approach to your business. It’s different to bringing in an employee because you also have the support of a quality training provider.

“It’s also about building a long-term and sustainable talent pipeline and if you can build an infrastructure, you can bring in lots of new talent.

“Often, there are no added costs too because of the apprenticeship levy and if it is a student aged between 16 and 18, it is fully funded and 95% of this is through government. But your apprenticeship provider can help with securing the correct funding and with the paperwork.

“Certainly, for us, we ensure it is employer-led throughout the whole procedure and the initiative is built around the business.”

From a business perspective, how has it been investing in these initiatives?

Emma Cox, Head of Field Sales at Thatchers Cider: “Thatchers Cider is in its fourth year of recruiting apprentices and for us, it’s been a fantastic source of attracting talent. Prior to this we really struggled to attract young people into the company and as a fifth generation cidermaker, it really made sense for us to provide careers for young people in the local area.

“Our first challenge was that many young people didn’t know what we did here; so offering an apprenticeship programme has allowed us to attract new talent we otherwise may have missed.

“It’s a big thing for us and we make a huge effort to provide our apprentices with a very structured programme because we’re mindful that they are choosing to come to us, rather than going to university, college or sixth form.

“They are trusting us with their career, so it’s vital as an employer we are doing everything right and part of this is to build a strong relationship with your education provider.

“To conclude, I have also found that when you go into schools, as an employer, you really realise how narrow-minded students are on careers, they have no idea of the scope of careers that are available to them and employers offering apprenticeships and engaging with education, can tackle this.”

Are you retaining most of the apprentices that join?

Emma Cox: “We have a very high retention rate and that is because we really focus on the young people, and we have built a strong system that they understand and gives them an insight into every part of the business and shows a clear career path.”

Can you tell us about your experience of investing in a T Level placement?

Mell Turford, Director and Chair at GFM: “We invested in a T Level Placement, and it is real life, not an assignment. The employee gains an understanding of your whole business
and sector, getting training in house. You give them a chance to build something that is theirs too and they are gaining confidence and great experience they can take forward.

“You are also benefitting from a different perspective and sometimes they’ll point something out to you and say, ‘why don’t you do it this way?’. They are learning from you but you’re learning from them too. If you look at digital skills too – young people are far ahead of the game.”

Shaun Grist, Group IT Manager at Wellington Motor Group: “We are new to this and we’ve only had our T Level placement individual for about seven months. Already he has become an invaluable member of our team. I’m an engineer and computer consultant and I’ve been passing all my knowledge on to him, which has been a very rewarding process. Through this placement, he is gaining experience of the real world early and that can only be a good thing.”

You mentioned this is a new scheme for you – why did you invest in it?

Shaun Grist: “It’s a nice way to expand the team, without having to put in a vast amount of money. If you want to employ somebody from the general market, they’ll have their own thoughts and ideas but with our young student, we can teach him what we need him to do for our business. But we can also develop him as he needs to be developed. It’s also a positive thing to do – it feels like the right thing to do.”

What has your experience been of investing in an apprentice?

Ingrid Parker, Operations Manager at Harris & Harris: “Our apprentice is in the late twenties and the apprentice programme has allowed him to enter an industry he was struggling to get into because he didn’t have the necessary qualifications.

“It’s also helped to provide support to our IT team who have had had to work remotely during the pandemic and deal with the challenges this has brought. “Bringing in an apprentice has been a great route for us, and we’re already discussing our next one.”

How can apprenticeships support older people?

Gillian Keegan MP: “Half of our apprentices in the UK are older. Often, they are people who just didn’t get that first shot at school, and are desperate to get on, which leads us on to where we are now with adults and how adults get a chance to reskill if they have been affected by the pandemic.

“In the next ten years, we’ll hit lots of challenges in our economy around reskilling and creating the talent needed for the jobs of the future. Many of these jobs will focus on the environment and climate change and many will also obviously be focused around the tech sector. It’s critical for old and young people, that they are getting the right advice, so they don’t end up in apprenticeship when they should have gone to university and vice versa.

“Specifically for adults, this year we have also launched the Lifetime Skills Guarantee which allows adult to access the apprenticeship scheme. About two and a half million adults are undertaking an apprenticeship, either to again additional skills or to go into a second career.”