The apprenticeship levy has driven new behaviours and rapid improvement among apprenticeship employment providers, writes Sharon Blyfield, but policy makers must heed their feedback to sustain the charge

The apprenticeship levy is not going away and, if used well, it should be a positive enabler to continuous development of all multi-generational organisations. However, some key areas need addressing to improve the experience and engagement of the levy payers and employers on whom the system depends.

It is a point I made at this week’s Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) autumn conference, where I provided a levy payer’s insight into the policy’s pros and cons. As employers, we welcome the fact that we have a stronger voice and have become an integral part of the apprenticeship conversation, helping to shape thinking and direction of government. However uncomfortable, it is important that voice is heard.

Since the introduction of the levy in April 2017, apprenticeships have been firmly on the map for many levy-paying organisations. Nowhere is this more evident than at Coca-Cola European Partners, where we have seen a significant increase in the number of apprentices.

The levy provided an opportune moment to bolster our existing initiatives, elevating our early careers agenda. In particular, we took the opportunity to focus on the pathways into our organisation for young people, ensuring that our award-winning apprenticeship programme attracts as diverse a pool of talent as possible.

The vast majority of those we come into contact with through our workshops and at career shows have very little understanding of the types of roles available at a drinks manufacturer. Our outreach programme has seen us engage with more colleges and young adults to raise awareness of the variety of positions within the business via our interactive careers map.

It is inflexibility that restricts the take-up of the levy

We are always looking to innovate and evolve our programmes, which is why we expanded apprenticeship pathways from level 2 to 7, widening the variety of disciplines available for apprentices and creating a more level playing field for those who are not academically minded, or lack the resources to move into higher education. 

I am passionate about degree apprenticeships and the opportunities these give to people from all backgrounds. It is wonderful to see this work come to fruition, and the apprenticeship levy has certainly galvanised our efforts.

However, the apprenticeship levy comes with many restrictions which can be frustrating for organisations that want to leverage the opportunities it should provide.  As repeatedly discussed with members of the National Skills Academy’s Employer Services Network, one of the biggest issues is the blanket approach that has been taken for all employers with the requirement that 20 per cent of apprenticeship time is spent “off-the-job”.

We understand the need to regulate and to ensure that apprentices are given time away from their role to fulfil learning requirements, but if the Education and Skills Funding Agency is  working with large, medium and small employers who have demonstrated an excellent track record of supporting their apprentices, why can’t the off-the-job element have greater flexibility? It is precisely this inflexibility that restricts the take-up of the levy.

I also raised the point that there is inconsistency in the quality of training providers. It is difficult to understand why some providers have registered to deliver programmes when they do not have the capability or standards in place to do what is required.

Having worked with providers who are excellent in their collaboration and understanding of the needs of business, it can be frustrating that there are others who have fantastic marketing and provide great promises, but fail to deliver. They give the sector a poor image to business and, more importantly, to the apprentices they are supposed to be developing.

Any changes that increase flexibility and drive consistency will improve the levy experience. Having found our voice, it is important that levy payers’ concerns are heard to make the policy a true success.