David Allison discusses the effects of the apprenticeship levy on business agendas and the challenge employers face in finding the right apprentices.

Whether you like it or not, the apprenticeship levy continues to raise awareness of apprenticeships across a wide range of stakeholders. Some of them have been around the block with the various iterations of skills funding and agencies in the last 20 years, and some are new to the subject of apprenticeships.

Each business that will be paying into the levy is undoubtedly trying to answer one simple question: ‘what does it mean for me?’

There are many answers: financial: ‘how can I get more back than I put in?’; strategic ‘how do I get the right skills for the next 10 years?’; or operational ‘how do I deliver an apprenticeship programme?’

It is up to the FE sector to help more employers take on more young people.

The fact that one version or another of this debate is now happening across the country is a significant opportunity for the FE sector as a whole. There will be a number of employers setting up apprenticeship programmes for the first time, or significantly scaling. Alongside complaints about the apprenticeship ‘tax’, there is also a genuine interest, and in some cases excitement, about the opportunities that the new apprenticeship agenda will open up.

So, the ‘three million apprentices’ target may be wrong and could threaten standards, but to focus on this side of the debate misses the very real opportunity that now exists. It is up to the FE sector to help more employers take on more young people.

The FE, and specifically apprenticeship, sector is about to be exposed to a new and exciting world and within this new world will come new rules. Some of them will be documented (eventually) by the funding agencies, others will be set out by our new customers.

At GetMyFirstJob, we believe that the winners in this marketplace will deliver consistently high levels of service throughout an apprenticeship programme. From the first engagement where programmes are specified and agreed, through the contracting and operational phases, it will no longer be enough simply to be an SFA contract holder. Agreeing and delivering on specific outcomes (and not simply following funding guidelines) will be essential.

All of this is happening at a time when the challenge to engage and recruit high quality candidates is also as hard as it has ever been. Changes to both sixth form and HE funding have led to increased ‘competition’ for learners. So, delivering an outstanding experience to candidates and companies will be needed to deliver the best outcome. It is the recruitment experience that will, after all, be the first real deliverable of the apprenticeship journey.

This experience has to go far beyond a simple communication process. Of course apprenticeship providers should get back to candidates when they apply, of course communication with employers should be accurate and timely. This is surely easy and done by all apprenticeship providers anyway, right? Wrong. Research we conducted recently with members of the Federation of Small Business, amongst others, showed that over 40% of small businesses who had experience of an apprenticeship programme rated the communication process with their provider as unsatisfactory. How many rated it as outstanding? I’m afraid to say 0%.

From working with 150 colleges, employers and training providers, GetMyFirstJob is fully aware of the challenges such establishments face in communicating apprenticeships with this generation of young people and serving up outstanding service to employers. That’s why we’re so pleased to be using our recent £1m investment from City & Guilds and Nesta, to put more focus on helping bridge the gap between young people, training providers and employers. Part of this strategy will include investing heavily in communicating the value of apprenticeships to young people and guiding businesses through the storm of the apprenticeship levy.