Apprenticeships should be a core part of the levelling-up agenda

21 Mar 2022, 6:00

The government needs to take action over the decline in apprenticeship starts if the country is to ‘level up’, writes David Phillips

The government has outlined ambitious and laudable plans for their levelling-up agenda, with the release of their recent white paper.

This promises to address geographic inequality across the country by investing in education and skills, some public services (such as the NHS, police and immigration), investing in towns, high streets and culture as well as a series of ambitious civil projects.

Big-ticket items of investment include £26 billion of public capital investment for the green industrial revolution, £4.8 billion into improving towns across the UK via the levelling-up fund; £5.7 billion allocated for improving transport links outside London and a commitment has been made to spend £5 billion on bringing gigabit-capable broadband to 85 per cent of the UK by 2025.

It is encouraging to see that the government has recognised the vital role that skills development will have to play in achieving the wider levelling-up agenda.

The white paper announced a £3.8 billion investment in skills in 2024/25, a lifetime skills guarantee in England, bootcamps and a new UK-wide numeracy programme.

However, it will be critical that these investments reach people across all parts of the UK and that the money is spent in key areas if they are to be effective.

The words ‘apprentice’ and ‘apprenticeship’ don’t appear at all in the levelling-up white paper. But apprenticeships must be made a priority to allow as many people as possible to access the opportunities that are likely to be available.

The words “apprentice” and “apprenticeship” don’t appear at all in the levelling-up white paper

And if they are more widely adopted, apprenticeships can help employers of all sizes to capitalise on the opportunities that the levelling-up agenda presents, by allowing them access to the skilled workers they need.

Using construction as an example, according to the Construction Industry Training Board, the construction sector is expected to need 217,000 new workers by 2025. Meanwhile, our Great Jobs report found that just 17 per cent of people not currently working in the construction sector said that they would consider a role in the industry.

Similarly, while only 23 per cent said they would consider a job in transport and logistics, the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport found that 54 per cent of logistics firms expect to experience skills shortages by 2024. If these skills shortages are not addressed then the UK will struggle to meet the goals of the levelling-up agenda.

A central aim of the levelling-up agenda is increasing pay, employment and productivity in every part of the UK.

In the past five years, since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, there has been a 36 per cent decline in the number of apprenticeship starts among young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

SMEs have been particularly impacted by the reforms to the apprenticeship-funding system, with many smaller firms struggling to meet the financial commitments required.

This is of particular concern, given that SMEs have historically been more likely to offer level 2 apprenticeships which offer opportunities to people without academic qualifications, thus promoting social mobility among disadvantaged groups.

While the 2019 reforms to the apprenticeship levy system did take steps to provide additional support for SMEs offering apprenticeships, the government should consider whether additional actions should be taken as part of the levelling-up agenda.

And with the increasing cost of attending university, apprenticeships have the potential to provide an alternative route to many young people, as well as older workers looking to change careers.

The levelling-up programme offers a valuable opportunity to support economic development across the UK and to bring opportunities to regions and communities that have historically struggled with high unemployment and a lack of investment.

If these opportunities are to be realised in a way that will promote long-term, sustainable growth and improvements in prosperity across the UK, then apprenticeships will constitute a vital part of achieving these goals, providing a long-term solution to the skills shortage and promoting social mobility.

City & Guilds are the headline partner of the Annual Apprenticeship Conference 2022



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