The skills minister has been scrutinised by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee in the last evidence session of their inquiry into apprenticeships.
John Hayes MP, speaking in Westminster last week, was quick to defend the rapid expansion in new apprentices aged 25 and above, as well as the apprenticeship scheme delivered by Elmfield Training at Morrisons.
“Unless we up skill and re-skill the existing workforce – the people over 25 – we simply won’t catch up with our competitors,” Mr Hayes said.
“I chose to make apprenticeships the vehicle to do that.”
He added: “But I do think that there would be an issue if that displaced younger apprentices.
“There’s been a 12.8 per cent growth in under 19 apprenticeships, there’s been a 69.3 per cent growth in 19 to 24 apprenticeships, so while it’s true that 25 apprenticeships have grown most, they’ve done so from a low base, and not at the expense of growth in other areas.
“If that were to happen, I would have concerns.”
The BIS Select Committee were quick to question Mr Hayes about whether the increase in adult apprentices could be attributed to existing employees.
If I felt that apprenticeships were merely being used to accredit existing competencies, then I would be concerned”
The skills minister replied: “The overwhelming majority of 25+ apprenticeships are already employed, but I simply strike this warning note on that – the real issue is how many are employed for how long.
“So if people were employed for a year or two years, they were new employees and the training was part of their induction with the skills necessary to do their job.
“That would be rather different to those who have been with a company for a very long time and were looking to use an apprenticeship to up skill.”
He added: “Both are legitimate, but they’re also rather different.”
The skills minister also defended the new 12 month minimum duration for all apprenticeships, due to be implemented in August, as a measure to improve additionality and remove unnecessary ‘dead-weight’.
“If I felt that apprenticeships were merely being used to accredit existing competencies, then I would be concerned,” Mr Hayes told the Committee.
“I think it’s absolutely right that apprenticeships, whoever does them, add to skills and that’s partly about the rigor of the system and one of the reasons why I extended the time for adult apprentices.”
He added: “A lot of people think I’ve been too tough on this…some of the learning providers said ‘well there’s been so much prior attainment amongst older people, there will be so much greater employability skills then there might be for a 16 year-old, so these apprenticeships can be completed in a shorter time’.
“But I actually insisted and I resisted that argument in order to ensure that what was taught and tested was meaningful and additional.”
Ann McKechin, MP for Glasgow North and a member of the BIS Select Committee, questioned Mr Hayes at length about the apprenticeship scheme delivered by Elmfield Training at Morrisons.
She said: “Morrisons is one of our major retailers with a turnover of over £1 billion a year – or probably much in excess of that – so I think the taxpayer is going to ask why shouldn’t Morrisons be paying for this?”
However, Mr Hayes defended the scheme resolutely and said it had “a number of things to recommend it”.
“Morrisons has employed 49,500 people since 2009 (who were) extra people or new people,” he said.
Of course people who supply goods and services to government make profits”
“Fifty per cent of them were previously unemployed, 50 per cent had no level 2 qualification, and 25 per cent had no qualification at all – many of those are now being put on apprenticeships.
“Eighty-four per cent of the Morrisons apprentices have numeracy and literacy problems – all of which are being tackled by their apprenticeship program, given as I said every apprenticeship must head towards a GCSE equivalent in maths and english.”
The skills minister later added that he didn’t want to be associated with a view that Morrisons apprenticeships “are not adding value”.
Ann McKechin followed up her question by asking the minister how the government valuated benefits made ‘in-kind’ by employers.
“My concern is when we took evidence from NAS, and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), they said they had no criteria for assessing benefits in-kind,” she said.
“They had no guidance of which they issued about how to value benefit in-kind, and yet employers are, if the employee is over 19, supposed to contribute a significant share, either in cash or benefit in-kind.”
The minister said his Department had research relating to the issue which they would be happy to provide the Committee at a later date.
Ann McKechin also questioned the skills minister about the significant profits taken by Elmfield Training, one of the providers which delivers apprenticeships at Morrisons.
Mr Hayes replied: “If government took the view that none of the organisations in which it deals or collaborated to deliver public programmes, should not make profits, my goodness we would have to close down a great deal of what any government has ever done.
“So of course people who supply goods and services to government make profits.
“That is the nature of the relationship between the public and the private sector.”
Mr Hayes also told the Committee that while the apprenticeship programme was filling “a much bigger footprint” than before, other types of vocational training shouldn’t be forgotten.
“I think there is a case for other work based training apart from apprenticeships,” he said.
“Of course as long as that training is meaningful and rigorous, it deserves its place in the sun too.
“Much of what FE colleges do, much of what businesses do, exists outside the apprenticeship framework.”
The minister suggested that more employers, particularly SMEs and medium-sized businesses, could be brought into the apprenticeship programme.
Mr Hayes said the first step was to ensure “that the apprenticeship frameworks match real commercial need”, and were created in a way that reflected the interests of employers.
The second step, he said, was to engage them through schemes such as the new Employer Ownership pilot, which is offering firms direct funding from a ‘pot’ worth up to £250 million.
“We said to employers, we want you to get involved in shaping the skills system,” Mr Hayes said.
“We’ve just had the responses to that invitation…employers working with education providers to look at how they can shape apprenticeships, as well as new and fresh ways to match their needs.”