Let’s not lump all higher apprenticeships together – some are genuinely about re-training and progression, says Iain MacKinnon

The government needs to sort this out, and fast. We cannot allow the apprenticeship reforms to be de-railed by employers upsetting the balance of the programme by spending so much of the levy on management apprenticeships.

But we also need to be careful: Anne Milton quite rightly said in her discussion with David Hughes (do watch it if you haven’t) that we need to be careful about unintended consequences. If we are committed to encouraging long-term structured training, and committed to progression, we ought not to restrict apprenticeship support to lower level programmes for the under 25s.

Let me explain.

Ask yourself what we’re trying to do here. The prize for government in setting apprenticeship policy is to use just enough leverage, no more, to get employers to do something that is good for the economy and good for our society, and which they wouldn’t have done anyway.

Government wants more employers to offer high quality, structured training programmes that give people an excellent foundation for career progression. That means investment, and however promising the returns, investment always means money up front. The government’s subsidy is meant to help get employers over that initial hurdle.

It’s early days, and let’s be fair, it’s hard to do – but it’s clear now that the government hasn’t got that balance right. It needs to sort this fast before it becomes a real problem.

Employers, acting rationally to secure their self-interest (at least as defined in the short-term) are using the government’s subsidy to put managers on management programmes – even worse, on MBAs – re-badged as apprenticeships. (There’s too much lazy talk about re-badging by people who’ve never sat in a trailblazer meeting, but much of this does deserve the label).

That’s a fail for government policy, even if those programmes are inherently valuable. In economic terms, it’s deadweight: this is the government paying companies to do what they would have done anyway. A waste of money.

By no means all higher level apprenticeships are like that

But by no means all higher level apprenticeships are like that. The norm in the maritime sector is that people have two-stage careers; it’s common to spend seven to ten years at sea, then you “come ashore” while still in your mid-20s, and have to start again.

The ideal, of course, is that you get proper re-training that builds on your sea-going skills, and a structured training programme that enables you to push on, but many don’t get it. The apprenticeship programme therefore gives us a great tool to get employers to provide structured career training for people who might not otherwise get that.

And it’s working. Because of the levy, we now have a national standard for marine pilots (at level 5), where we didn’t have a national standard before. And work is about to start on a standard for harbour masters (also at level 6), which again, we’ve never had before. (Ports, you may have noticed, are very much in the news these days, now that politicians have spotted that 95 per cent of our trade comes to us by sea). Numbers aren’t huge, but these are good wins for national policy.

So when Anne Milton said in her discussion with David Hughes that apprenticeships “have also got to be about progression”, I think she was talking about people like this.

People who train to be officers in the commercial shipping sector (i.e. managers) get an HND or a foundation degree when they do their initial three-year training programme. It’s great training (with, T-level planners please note, a full year’s training at sea as a mandatory element), but in no sense are they in the same category as a graduate manager ashore getting a chance to do a further degree.

The government needs to take control of the runaway train of management apprenticeships, and do so fast, but let’s please be careful not to damage other higher apprenticeships, which are very much in line with key policy objectives.