This week colleagues, apprentices and employers are virtually celebrating National Apprenticeship Week in England and Apprenticeship Week Cymru.
We have heard messages from Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the value of apprenticeships and Minister for Education and Skills Gillian Keegan has lauded that apprenticeships in England “play a key part in the government’s Plan for Jobs, designed to protect, support and create jobs for all ages as we build back better from the pandemic.”
We know the political winds across England continue to blow in favour of apprenticeships and more flexible routes into education, but much depends on what employers think, and whether they are able to take on more apprentices this year. How do employers feel about the future of apprenticeships, and what might that mean for training providers, colleges and higher education institutions who they look to partner with to deliver those life-changing opportunities?
A return to optimism
To mark National Apprenticeship Week, The Open University, one of the largest degree apprenticeship providers in England – teamed up with The 5% Club to poll over 600 employers in England in January 2021 for our Build the Future report. We found that in the medium term, the appetite for apprenticeships and work-based learning is now on the rise amongst English employers in the wake of the Covid-19 vaccine.
70 per cent of employers believe that apprenticeships and work-based learning will be vital to their organisation’s recovery – encouragingly this has risen from 50 per cent of employers polled in the OU’s annual Business Barometer in August of 2020.
In addition, 66 pre cent of English companies who hire apprentices report that apprenticeships have enabled their organisation to bounce back from the economic fall out of the pandemic more quickly.
Of particular relevance to those of us offering higher and degree apprenticeships, the polling shows that 82 per cent of employers believe that apprenticeships are important for all ages and the same number believe that apprenticeships should be delivered across all levels of education, including higher and degree apprenticeships.
Other findings in the polling include:
- The number of organisations planning to increase their apprenticeship intake over the next twelve months has increased. 72 per cent now plan to hire more apprentices over the next year, up from 61 per cent polled last summer in the OU’s Business Barometer. Encouragingly, this is true for both SMEs and large businesses.
- It is still an exceptionally challenging environment for the most hard-hit sectors: 48 per cent of employers in the arts, entertainment and recreation sectors are planning on hiring more apprentices over the next year compared to 81 per cent of employers in the information and digital services sector.
- In addition, there is concern for the short-term. Employers report that they are still considering letting go some of their apprentices, with East of England and London firms are most likely to be planning to let go of some of their apprentices, with fewer firms in the South West planning to do the same. Again, these views seem to be equally shared amongst both SMEs and large employers.
- Employers more broadly report a real sense of positivity towards apprenticeships: 74 per cent report it has boosted retention in their organisation, 77 per cent report an increase in productivity and 80 per cent have witnessed the transformative impact of apprenticeships on the learner. Encouragingly, 75 per cent of organisations in England who hire apprentices report it allows them to forge relationships with their local area.
- As higher education colleagues will be well aware, apprenticeships present an opportunity to bring in new and diverse talent to an organisation, as well as providing transformative opportunities for the apprentice. Business leaders also report this, with 74 per cent of employers who hire apprentices say that they are an engine of social mobility.
What’s clear from this polling is the appetite for apprenticeships amongst employers continues to grow, and higher and degree apprenticeships will continue to be an important part of this, enabling employers to plug significant regional skills gaps, boost productivity and bring in new and diverse talent.
Whatever the appetite though, we need joined-up policy and funding mechanisms to underpin it, especially for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Higher and degree apprenticeships in small businesses will be vital to boost productivity and support the UK government’s levelling up agenda. So let’s hope the government is able to deliver on, and build upon, its commitments in the latest spending review and the Skills for Jobs white paper to support SMEs to take on more apprentices, at any level.