The latest in a series of reports on apprenticeships came off the conveyor belt last week just as many 18 year olds were considering their options in the light of their exam results and the Government was said to be considering its options for stimulating growth and employment.

The focus of this latest report was SMEs, small and medium employers, an important heartbeat of the economy but by definition facing more difficulties than most in being able to offer apprenticeship opportunities. According to the author of this report, jeweller and entrepreneur Jason Holt, take up of apprenticeships in SMEs is “at best just under 10% which is less than half that of larger companies.”

the Government has little money in the kitty for new initiatives”

The particular difficulties that SMEs face appear to boil down to three problems: communication; empowerment; and simplification. Or as the report goes on to explain: “as far as SMEs are concerned, the existing apprenticeships programme is misunderstood and inaccessible, not always helped by a plethora of organisations willing to give-sometimes conflicting-advice, and one or more weaknesses in the employer-provider-apprenticeship triangle.”

Little of this will come as a surprise, so what’s the report recommending?

Interestingly it challenges some of the conventional wisdom that regulation and red tape are to blame, “nothing specific to apprenticeships of that kind has been raised,” concentrating instead on the issue of empowerment. Proposals here include developing a standard Provider Charter or online tool to enable SME’s to check out where best provision and training opportunities are available locally, freeing up SMEs to be able to develop their own training provision and more controversially, weighting funding in favour of SMEs on the basis that they cannot resort to the same economies of scale that larger companies can. The problem is however that the Government has little money in the kitty for new initiatives so many of these recommendations meet with an interested nod from Government but not much else at this stage.

In one area there will be disappointment and that is in the raising of awareness about apprenticeships at a school and local level”

One of the more significant outcomes of the report has been some changes to the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers (AGE) in particular opening this out now to larger employers, those with 1,000 employees rather than those with 250 employees or less. The aim, along with other changes such as simplifying the drawing down of funding and increasing the number of Grants an employer can apply for, is to beef up an initiative that was struggling to make impact but does raise the question about whether small businesses with less capacity might miss out. Time will tell and the Government is moving ahead with other developments that may help including piloting traineeships, looking a bit more closely at who does what around apprenticeships and reviewing Group Training Associations (GTAs) but the small business issue remains pertinent if apprenticeship growth is to spread.

In all, the report comes up with 13 recommendations covering each of the three problem areas identified. In one area there will be disappointment and that is in the raising of awareness about apprenticeships at a school and local level. This summer more than ever, young people have been considering other alternatives to higher education and that has led to considerable interest in apprenticeships. A ready supply of ‘eager young people, encouraged by their parents and school’ is, as the report recognised, essential for the continued growth of apprenticeships yet the worry is that the understanding of apprenticeships in schools is not great and unlikely to improve under current arrangements. The report calls for a concerted effort to raise awareness among young people using a combination of apprenticeship intermediaries, local authorities, chambers of commerce and so on but the Government believes the onus for any action should reside with schools.

That said we may not have to wait too long for the next report, it’s due for the end of October/beginning of November.