The Forum of Private Business has warned that apprenticeships are facing an identity crisis, with business owners concerned that shorter schemes do not provide the same value as longer courses.
The Forum’s senior policy adviser Alex Jackman gave evidence to the Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) Select Committee’s inquiry into apprenticeships in the House of Commons.
Jackman told MPs that shorter apprenticeships have faced criticism from UK business owners, particularly those in traditional industries such as manufacturing and engineering, who argue they do not provide the same value as the longer schemes they run – despite evidence of their popularity among more service-orientated sectors including retail.
“At a general level we have spent decades devaluing GCSEs, A-levels and degrees by making them easier to pass. It is just not acceptable to devalue apprenticeships in the same way,” he said.
“Apprenticeships are facing an identity crisis over how entrepreneurs view shorter courses. Business owners in more traditional industries often doubt their value relative to the longer schemes they run, and even question whether they should be branded as apprenticeships at all, but others – in retail, for example – see many benefits.
“It is, of course, important that shorter apprenticeships are more than simply glorified training schemes, hitting businesses in the pocket for little in return, and we should guard against diluting courses so they fall below industry standards, but, providing these schemes are accredited, shown to address real skills needs and are well regarded, even as entry-level apprenticeships, they should rightly be valued, protected and promoted.
“However, we do need more awareness of the differences between intense, four-year apprenticeships and shorter schemes, greater clarity about their applicability to businesses in different industries and more centralised information about where to source information, funding and courses.”
In its submission to the official inquiry, the Forum argued that central government could be more effective in overcoming the lack of clarity over information about apprenticeships as a result of the numerous routes through which to seek advice.
The not-for-profit employer body welcomed recent improvements to the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), particularly its commitment to advertise a firm’s apprenticeship position within one month, place an apprentice within thee months, and remove any health and safety requirements that go beyond national standards.
The Forum reported generally positive feedback on NAS’s activities, including its national contract management – but noted some continuing problems associated with sub-contracting training and courses and called for more awareness of the breadth of professions running apprenticeship schemes.
With resources scarce for small firms there is a need for robust data and feedback on the effectiveness of courses to ensure quality control. Closer interaction between training providers and local businesses would be beneficial.
Further, the Forum believes that reinstating independent careers advice in schools and colleges would develop greater understanding of the value of apprenticeships within the education system.
In the interests of flexibility and meeting the specific needs of small businesses, the Forum also called for more incentives to encourage firms to take on apprentices, for example via tax breaks and building on the direct, employer-led funding initiative currently being piloted.
Forum research suggests 46% of small businesses use day release and college training apprenticeships, 31% traditional ‘on-the-job’ training schemes, 26% work trials taking on long-term unemployed people on 30-day trials.
Barriers to taking on apprenticeships include red tape – with 22% of respondents citing health and safety regulations. Many business owners believe risk assessments lack ‘common sense’.
Employment law is also a major issue. In all, 78% of Forum members said they would be encouraged to take on more young people if it was easier to let recent recruits go should they not work out, with 54% suggesting reducing red tape when recruiting and 74% lowering employment costs more generally.
In order to make training and skills more employer-focused 25% called for apprenticeships to be better tailored to their needs. Further, 23% called for tax cuts and 31% for training vouchers.