Simple, structured and supported — three key characteristics that must define moves toward apprenticeship funding being routed directly to businesses, says Neil Carberry, director for employment and skills policy, Confederation of British Industry.

Now that things are looking up for the economy, investment in apprenticeships is crucial.

As the recent results of a UK Commission for Employment & Skills survey show, the flipside of growth is an escalating skills gaps and shortages — the survey found that skills shortage vacancies had doubled since 2009.

Encouraging more firms to benefit from apprenticeships will be a vital part of tackling this skills crunch, in part because of the particular combination of training they deliver.

And by allowing people to take their first steps on the career ladder and for others to move up it, more apprenticeships will help us move towards growth that benefits everyone after a prolonged squeeze.

Many businesses have already invested in delivering high quality apprenticeships and many more could be, including smaller firms, with the right balance of simplicity and relevance.

That’s why the apprenticeships reforms are such an important opportunity — we have the chance to establish a truly demand-led apprenticeship system that works for firms of all sizes.

There is some great work going on out there — the five per cent club, made up of some of the UK’s biggest employers, is focused on industry playing an active part in addressing youth unemployment and the chronic skills shortage we face.

Its members are companies who have signed up to five per cent of their UK workforce being young people on structured training schemes over the next five years, which includes apprenticeships.

The trailblazer pilots also demonstrate firms’ willingness to play their role in this change.

Road-testing the reforms like this is the only way to find the speed bumps and level them out.

One of these is to find ways for time-poor smaller firms to genuinely feed into and shape frameworks.

Another is some hand-holding for firms who are less familiar with training systems — whether that be shared learning from other trailblazers, or from industry or sector bodies.

In both of these areas, businesses recognise that they have a responsibility towards their wider sectors and supply chains.

Routing more funding through employers to send a clearer market signal of the kinds of provision that firms value is a proposition we’re right behind.

There are undoubtedly some significant hurdles to overcome, and we have set a number of key tests for any new system.

First of all it must be simple. The government must reduce, not increase the complexity for firms taking on apprentices.

Any transfer to the new system must be carefully phased and piloted, with firms given the option to retain arrangements that work over the change period and providers given the time needed to adapt.

A key part of this is coming up with a solution on how to support smaller firms to play their part. Finally, the government must retain the current level of support for the apprenticeship programme: the proposed reforms must be an opportunity to spend smarter, not reduce overall levels of government support for the apprenticeship programme.

None of these changes can stand in isolation. New apprenticeship frameworks and funding arrangements must sit within a wider skills ecosystem that supports the new leadership role for business.

For example, I envision a strong role for collaboration, including providers, to guide and enable smaller firms to engage meaningfully with the skills system. One way to achieve this is through seed funding for clusters of skills provision — locally, sectorally and within supply chains.

I’m in no doubt that we have to seize the opportunity the current reforms present us with. It represents a seismic change for businesses — but if we can implement a demand-led skills system, the potential prize is huge.

National Apprenticeship Week supplement

National Apprenticeship Week supplement