At the FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference (AAC) in 2020 we all gathered in Birmingham knowing that it was highly likely the impact of being hit by a global health pandemic would shut down the country for a short while. However, never in a million years did I think that we would have spent the majority of the next year in lockdown, and that the impact would still be as significant in 2021 meaning that we would be running a virtual AAC as a result this year.

Although we can now begin to look to recovery and the future, with a badly damaged economy and a huge increase in the numbers of unemployed, we will live with the impact of this pandemic for decades to come. It literally has left many of this country’s business and political leaders scratching their proverbial heads about how we rebuild, where do we start and focus our efforts and now even more limited resources.   The answer (as far as I am concerned) to this question is – Skills! Surely by now it is clear to everyone that reskilling will play a critical part in the recovery of the country and ultimately lead us back to a position of prosperity.

As we face the task ahead of us, never has there been a time in recent memory when apprenticeships felt more vitally important to the future of our industries and our workforce. Apprenticeships can clearly serve an altruistic purpose, allowing the many young people who have been left without work to get into a job, as well as those older workers, who have been displaced by the impact of the pandemic to retrain and enter a career in a new industry.

Kirstie speaking at AAC 2019.

However, looking to the longer term, apprenticeships could, and should, also be used to help stimulate our economy by creating the in-demand skills that employers truly need to repair and to grow. These will include much needed ‘green’ and digital skills as well as filling skills gaps in industries that are set to grow in the coming years such as the health and social care, infrastructure, transport and rail sectors. Importantly, these are also sectors where apprenticeships could be used to tackle social injustices by diversifying the workforce and driving up social mobility, providing people with the opportunity to gain the in demand skills that will boost their earning potential and ensuing businesses have the diversity of thought needed to make sure they stay relevant and authentic in the modern world.

We all know that there has been a significant drop in the number of apprenticeships starts in the past year, not least due to the impact of the pandemic, and it’s simply unrealistic to say that employers should take on apprentices in the current climate if their business is struggling for survival. That’s why we at City & Guilds believe that we need to see a temporary loosening of the restrictions around the levy to allow employers to spend their levy on apprentice wages. At City & Guilds we have been calling for a number of years for the levy to be made into a broader skills levy to allow employers to gain the skills they truly need which, controversial to say at an apprenticeship conference, might not always be in the form of an apprenticeship. We need more than ever flexible skills programmes. At the same time, we also need to ‘protect’ the rigour and quality of what an Apprenticeship stands for so it retains it is regarded as a ‘stamp of quality’.

We need to inject  a real dose of pragmatism of the broader skills landscape, look at the bigger picture and consider the very best ways to help people get the skills they need to get into good work right now, and how to help employers get the workforces they need to thrive in a Post Covid and Post Brexit world.

I am delighted that the AAC has been able to run this year, despite Covid restrictions, as I truly believe it is an important platform for debate, discussion, insight and learning takes place, to keep us all pushing forward as a whole sector united in a passion for apprenticeships and the value they can bring to society, individuals and businesses. 

City & Guilds will be running a series of thought-provoking debates and deep-dive discussions throughout the week that consider all of the issues I have just raised. Also lots of superb guest and panel speakers, including the acclaimed social commentator and comedian Deborah Frances White. I really hope you’ll all come and get involved in the conversations.

City & Guilds are the headline partner of the 7th FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference.  Taking place online from Monday 26 – Friday 30 April. For more information and to register visit: https://feweekaac.com/