Rob Wye warns Labour’s plans for more employer-involvement in apprenticeship schemes could actually put many businesses off taking on trainees.

The Husbands Review of Vocational Education and Training aims to “address historic weaknesses in skills development and training to improve the country’s competitiveness”.

It identifies issues that have hindered the quality and quantity of apprenticeships in the UK and proposes a series of changes to narrow the gap between the supply of, and demand for, high quality apprenticeships.

The review also aims to ensure the outputs of apprenticeships are firmly focused on ensuring “young people leaving school are better prepared for the world of work through high quality vocational education”.

Given the level of youth unemployment in the UK, the proposal to “demote” level two apprenticeships is puzzling.

If apprenticeships are to be seen as equivalent to university education, it stands to reason entry requirements should be the same – therefore level three, or A-level.

Meeting the needs of everyone involved is nigh on impossible”

However, whereas universities require a high level of attainment from the outset, learners often enter the workplace at a lower level and progress throughout their lifetime.

A significant percentage of job roles in the UK are at level two.

These roles need skilled workers to fill them. If employers can only accept level three learners on apprenticeships, this may lead to a rise in overseas learners filling skills gaps, which would defeat the object of up-skilling Britain’s workforce.

As is too often the case, a broad-brush approach has been applied, not taking into account sectors such as health and social care where level two roles are not only plentiful, but vital.

Justifying the proposal by saying “that’s what they do in Germany” holds little weight, given the differences in early years, with primary and secondary education.

Also, more German learners are attaining a higher secondary qualification than in the UK (based on research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and are eligible to enter apprenticeships at level three.

The review suggests a “something for something” deal that gives employers more control over funding and standards, in return for creating more high quality apprenticeships.

While it is universally agreed that employers need to be more actively involved in the design of apprenticeships to ensure their continued buy-in, caution is required if the “something for something” philosophy doesn’t translate as “you do more and then pay more”.

It must be remembered there is a high level of satisfaction among employers with current apprenticeship arrangements.

Government research highlights that 60 per cent of employers rate their experience of apprenticeships at least eight out of 10, so a tweak to the current system may be more beneficial than wholesale change.

The issue the review fails to address is how much involvement employers actually want.

The harsh reality in tough economic times is businesses want the highest possible output for the least investment.

Employers already invest a significant amount of time, effort and money into apprenticeships.

Asking them to design their own frameworks, procure and pay for their programme (as the Richard Review proposes), then offer even more support over the mooted minimum two or three year duration will only serve to make apprenticeships a less viable option.

Saddling employers with additional administration and cost will inevitably lead to a fall in the number of apprenticeships offered.

Also, giving employers the ability to negotiate apprenticeship contracts will see some training providers cutting corners to deliver training within a significantly reduced budget, thereby damaging the quality of apprenticeships.

Meeting the needs of everyone involved is nigh on impossible.

Rather than the government issuing consultation after consultation on reforming different aspects of the programme, now is the time for a broad range of employers, sector representatives, funding agencies, awarding organisations and government departments to work together.

They can build a world class apprenticeship programme that provides a wide range of learners with the opportunity to develop skills and knowledge, and employers with the skilled workforce that enables British industry to compete with the very best.

Rob Wye, chief executive, Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education