In last week’s FE Week webinar, the skills minister insisted the 20-per-cent off-the job training rule for would be sticking around. Neil Davies explains why not all employers are in favour

While some employers might not welcome the financial cost of the levy, most undoubtedly want to maximise their return. For most, the levy is for spending on upskilling, and in the companies we work with it is seen as a huge, beneficial opportunity, even though some have been slow to formulate their approach and prioritise spend.

Across our two main businesses, Watertrain and Intelligencia Training, we are seeing significant increases in current and planned apprenticeship numbers. The level three water process technician standard and the level four apprenticeship in intelligence operations provide significant new knowledge and skills to improve the effectiveness of staff. While of great value to individuals and their organisations, the vast majority of these new starts would simply not happen if it were not for the levy.

It is upskilling that accounts for the vast majority of starts

There have been various claims about red tape and bureaucracy affecting both the roll-out and start numbers. These in our view are overstated. We are finding no process blockages at our employers, and indeed have found the whole digital apprenticeship service set-up surprisingly easy to work with.

Nor do we recognise the argument that the levy is responsible for the “collapse” in apprenticeship starts. This makes little sense when the government has money available and a relatively simple system to enable firms to spend it. If a levy employer was previously offering apprenticeships, it’s only the payment methodology that has changed – not the decision to do apprenticeships.

We no longer operate in the non-levy-paying sector, so it’s difficult to comment on what impact the employer 10-per-cent financial contribution may be having on starts. But from my experience, I suspect it will affect the ability of some SMEs to take on apprentices or upskill staff.

The new 20-per-cent off-the-job (OTJ) training requirement is a big change to the historical apprenticeship delivery model.

We are fortunate that our water sector clients are using the new standard to upskill their operational teams and there are plenty of opportunities under “skills and behaviours” to capture OTJ activity. The high percentage is however still a real challenge. Freeing staff for the knowledge and skills elements affects operations, so to rota the release of staff from the front line, in essence, for one day a week is costly and problematic.

The rule may sound like a good idea, particularly for a 16- to 18-year-old in their first job. However, it is upskilling that accounts for the vast majority of starts, and the OTJ policy makes a huge assumption that businesses can afford to lose a member of staff’s output for one day every week.

For example, in one large tier-one contractor to the water sector, the operations director has stopped using apprenticeships to upskill in the operations side of the business given the staffing limitations. Many businesses will not have the resources to manage the OTJ. This can only mean that many thousands of potential starts will be lost.

There is a material risk that some employers, in their determination to fully spend the levy, will not necessarily commit to the intent of the OTJ.

Equally, I suspect many on upskilling programmes would rather be doing their day job than trying to create an activity log that may have little or no actual value. Politicians state that the new apprenticeship standards are about giving employers ownership of their own skills agenda. Why then do policymakers impose an arbitrary percentage insisting it is about adding quality?

Perhaps the rule-makers need to actually give employers that ownership and control, and let them decide what percentage of OTJ best suits their needs, because currently the rule constrains employers and their staff development.

Neil Davies is director of Watertrain Limited