Time for fresh look at vital apprenticeships, says expert
A West Midlands expert on apprenticeships is urging a fresh look be taken at the way the vital training is being delivered across the region.
Rob Colbourne, chief executive of Walsall-based PTP (Performance Through People) for the last 15 years, wants the Government to look again at the way the controversial Apprenticeship Levy, introduced in April 2017, is utilised to help provide apprenticeship opportunities for people of all ages.
Mr Colbourne said that the levy had “thrown the baby out with the bath water” and urgent reform was now needed to help more people reach their potential.
He said that proper quality apprenticeships had a vital role to play in helping to close the productivity and skills gap across industries in the UK and to help to retain talent in local communities.
The levy is paid by all employers with annual pay bills of more than £3 million. They pay 0.5 per cent of their total wage bill to the Treasury, which in turn is supposed to use the fund to pay for apprenticeship training through grants.
But in reality the system is unwieldy and has confused and deterred employers – and apprenticeships have “fallen off a cliff” as a result.
Mr Colbourne said: “It came in as employers were dealing with Brexit, pension increases and changes to the minimum and living wages.
If the Government had said it would be brought in over an 18-month period with a proper timetable and structure it would have worked quite well, but the policy was not thought through and everything changed overnight. As a result apprentice numbers fell off the cliff and employers started to walk away from providing apprenticeships.”
“Most of the levy pot is being used up on higher lever apprenticeships through universities, and money is not being utilised by levy employers and is going back to the Treasury.”
Mr Colbourne said a number of measures were now needed, including guaranteeing £1.5 billion of funding to help non-levy paying small and medium-sized businesses to provide apprenticeships, providing a proper level of funding to ensure apprentices had a team leader, appropriate Level 2 training programmes and ensuring apprentices were brought up to Level 2 maths and English, the lack of which is one of the biggest barriers to progression and employment.
He believes the fall in participation of SMEs has affected the very communities the Conservative government want to support and improve.
“The lack of opportunities in SMEs has been a major contributor to the fall in the participation of young people,” he explained.
Mr Colbourne also urges a reduction in the bureaucracy around training, adding: “I’m sure that for every £10 invested in training, £8 of that is utilised to see how the money is spent.”
The latest statistics on apprenticeships in November prove the case for the urgency of reform.
“There had been an 18 per cent drop in apprenticeship start numbers in a year and over £70m of levy funds were unspent and going back to the Treasury – that is a missed opportunity. That level of funding should be going back into the apprenticeships system,” he added.
Mr Colbourne is worried that private providers of apprenticeships are disappearing and a huge number of colleges are millions of pounds in debt.
Currently only 10 per cent of 15 to 18-year olds are encouraged to take up an apprenticeship.
Later this year the Express & Star and Shropshire Star will be joining forces with organisations involved in delivering apprenticeships to re-launch the Ladder for the Black Country and Ladder for Shropshire campaigns to help young people get their first foot on the rung towards a new career and employers to fill vacancies.
More than 1,000 found employment in the Black Country in the first campaign.
PTP, which has five training centres across the Midlands, including Cannock and Wolverhampton and is involved with providers on a national basis, played a key role in the Ladder for the Black Country.
Mr Colbourne said it had done great work with schools, school leavers and employers on raising awareness of apprenticeships and showcasing success stories, adding: “It showed that there was another route other than university and having a £50,000 debt at the end of three years.
“Schools need to be giving better advice and guidance to pupils.We should not be saying the options are only doing an apprenticeships, staying on for sixth form or going to university. The key is to find the right programme of path for each individual young person to fit their needs,” he explained.
“Re-introducing the Ladder will support engaging with schools and school leavers, the unemployed, employers with upskilling issues and hopefully showcase how we can get the best out of apprenticeships.”
Black Country Skills Factory is holding an apprenticeship career event for parents of 16 to 18-year-olds at the Village Hotel in Dudley, on March 5 at 4.45pm to offer the latest advice.