Two companies that were among the first flexi-job apprenticeship agencies have pulled out of the flagship programme just months after its launch.
And another key player has warned its future as a flexi-job apprenticeship agency could come to an end next year unless the government stumps up more grant funding, after finding the scheme is too expensive to deliver.
The Department for Education launched its first flexi-job apprenticeship register in February, after the scheme was announced by then chancellor Rishi Sunak in his Budget in March 2021 to help industries where project-based employment is the norm.
The agencies employ apprentices and place them with multiple employers, moving them around different projects throughout their apprenticeship. They target industries where shorter-term or freelance working patterns are prevalent and therefore struggle to comply with the 12-month minimum apprenticeship rule, such as creative, digital, agriculture and construction.
Fifteen organisations joined the register at its launch in February, but in an update released by the DfE this month, two of those – Nottingham College Services Ltd and HR Provider Ltd – no longer appear. A new company, Future Nation, joined the list in March.
Nottingham College Services, a subsidiary of Nottingham College, told FE Week it withdrew from the scheme due to low demand. The company was unable to comment further on its recruitment struggles at the time of going to press.
HR Provider Ltd was also unavailable to comment on its withdrawal from the flexi-job apprenticeship agency register.
The Department for Education refused to comment on the reasons why the companies were no longer on the list.
Both Nottingham College Services Ltd and HR Provider Ltd were among five of the original 15 agencies not to have received any grant funding to help with running the programme. The DfE committed £5 million in grant funding to 10 of the original agencies in 2021/22 and 2022/23, with a target of 1,500 apprentices recruited in the initial rollout of the flexi-job model.
ScreenSkills, which had taken part in an informal pilot of the flexi-job apprenticeship model in partnership with Warner Media, Netflix and the Department for Culture Media and Sport over the last 18 months, has received a chunk of grant funding to become a flexi-job agency, but told FE Week that uncertainty of funding going forward put its involvement in future under threat.
DfE flexi-job support to end
Sara Whybrew, apprenticeship and policy consultant at ScreenSkills, said: “At the moment the pilot gets some support from DfE but that will come to an end, and the expectation is that industry will pay for that support.
“That isn’t realistic because, particularly in the case of screen production, those industry players are paying the wage and associated oncosts for the apprentice, and they are paying the levy to cover the cost of the training. To ask them to pay for our additional support service, even though they value it, just isn’t realistic.”
Recognising that pumping grant funding in future years isn’t feasible, ScreenSkills instead wants to see a percentage of levy funds ringfenced to provide support services – including flexi-job services.
While it is unclear how many apprentices have been signed up to the agencies to date and despite two agencies dropping off the register, there are promising signs elsewhere with other agencies reporting a positive experience.
The DfE has confirmed there were 30 applicants in the last window to join the register, which are now being assessed, adding that it hoped to test the approach with new sectors and employers.
Whybrew said that “the actual service itself has the potential to make apprenticeships more accessible,” and reported “a high level of retention for apprentices”.
Matthew Lord, co-founder and director of Inspire ATA, which operates in the education space, said the model was “apprenticeships’ best-kept secret”.
He said it allowed schools to take on support staff as apprentices to match school terms, such as running January to July and place the apprentice in another school from September.
“The main barrier is simply that most employers don’t know that this is an option until we can meet with them to explain things. Once the understand the benefits it becomes an attractive option,” Lord said.
Evolve Apprentices Ltd, Calico Enterprise and Training and Apprenticeships in Construction Ltd all reported positives to the scheme for short-term projects.
Julie Deeley, director of operations at EN:Able Futures community interest company added: “It’s not an easy model to promote sometimes, but we all feel there is a lot of positive in the model, and it creates opportunities that would have gone by the wayside had we not been here.”