Andrea Jenkyns has pledged to put making it easier for small businesses to take on apprentices at the top her agenda as skills minister – although she is yet to be party to departmental conversations about making this happen.
The minister was appointed to the skills brief, which involves responsibility for apprenticeships, in July in Boris Johnson’s reshuffle before he resigned as prime minister. Jenkyns was reappointed to the role last month by new leader Liz Truss.
Jenkyns told the Conservative party conference this week that her “big focus” is improving engagement with employers in apprenticeships. She said: “How can we make the process easier for employers, especially if you are a one-man band where you wear several hats, it can be a cumbersome process and it has got to be easy.”
Her comment came after chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng said that too often regulation and “stifling red tape” holds “business and Britain back”, adding that there are “too many rules for small business owners who want to take on an apprentice” in his keynote conference speech this week.
But Jenkyns said she had not been part of ministerial conversations about tackling this issue to date.
“Look, I can’t say what discussions the chancellor is having in his department. We do have bilateral meetings, you know with the education secretary [Kit Matlhouse], but I haven’t been party to those yet,” she told FE Week.
“But I know the department, speaking to not only the civil servants but Kit and the rest of the team, we do want to unshackle businesses to be able to really take on more apprentices. So I say watch this space. I know it’s a cliché saying that, but it’s something the secretary of state and myself are really passionate about because it’s vital. It’s a no brainer, we’ve got to make it easier for businesses to take on apprentices.”
Her comments come six months after the then-skills minister Alex Burghart committed to “reduce friction” for small employers using the apprenticeships system.
The digital apprenticeship service was launched in April 2017 but was only for levy-paying employers to manage and spend their apprenticeship funding.
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) fully transitioned onto the service in April 2021, meaning that all apprenticeship starts must now go through the system rather than procured non-levy contracts held by training providers.
Burghart said this has been a “time of significant change” and recognised there are concerns that this “new way of working” has introduced some “additional administration, which has been burdensome for providers, and for particularly for SMEs”.
He revealed in March that he had asked his officials to run a “series of hackathons on the system” to “make sure that we can make it as effective as it can be and reduce as much friction as possible so that we can encourage more SMEs to get involved”.
Asked what progress had been made since this commitment, the Department for Education told FE Week: “We will continue to work with the sector and employers to explore ways to remove barriers to engagement for employers, apprentices and providers.”
Tina McKenzie, the policy and advocacy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said it is “refreshing to hear DfE ministers talking so directly about unshackling and incentivising businesses to take on more apprentices”.
She said that two-fifths of small businesses with apprentices say that recruiting and training costs “are on the up – so they could streamline some of the requirements, there”.
Jane Hickie, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said that too many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) find the apprenticeship system “too difficult to navigate – citing bureaucracy, cost, time, and administrative constraints”.
Recruitment, onboarding and navigating the funding rules are also raised most frequently by SMEs and the providers who support them.
Hickie said she the DfE “clearly recognise the scale of the problem and have committed to undertaking a simplification project – which is welcome”.
Other priorities Jenkyns listed off at the Conservative party conference included raising the “parity of esteem” between academic and technical education, continuing the rollout of T Levels, and introducing the lifelong loan entitlement in 2025.