Tripling traineeships: no growth yet, but new providers remain upbeat

apprentice cash incentives

The government has failed to boost radically the number of traineeships in the first half of the year – but providers tasked with tripling the number of starts insist they are up for the challenge.

FE Week analysis of the latest Department for Education data shows there were 8,800 starts between August 2020 and January 2021 – just 400 more than were achieved in the same period the previous year. 

It means that more than 35,000 starts are needed between February and July to hit chancellor Rishi Sunak’s goal of tripling their number this year to combat youth unemployment following Covid-19. 

In the same period last year, 6,500 starts were recorded and took the final 2019/20 year-end figure to 14,900. 

This year’s continued sluggish take-up comes despite the government reforming the funding rules for the pre-employment programme in September, which included increasing the funding rate for 19-to- 24 traineeships by 54 per cent, from £970 to £1,500, and opening them up to people who already hold a level 3 qualification.

Employer cash incentives of £1,000 for each traineeship learner they take on were also introduced.

A big chunk of the starts needed in the last half of 2020/21 – around 20,000 – are hoped to come from a £65 million tender for 19-to-24 traineeships. 

The procurement was originally planned to get under way last summer but was beset with delays – an issue that FE Week understands personally annoyed Sunak, as it hindered his expansion plans. 

Despite only having a brief window to recruit, training providers that won big in the tender are optimistic about spending their full allocations. 

Let Me Play Ltd, a provider that did not previously hold a traineeship contract but won the largest allocation, just shy of the £3 million cap, told FE Week it is “profiled to spend the majority of the contract”. 

The firm’s co-founder and director Matthew Lord said: “We mobilised swiftly – so far no challenges. We have lots of young people who are keen for an opportunity and many employers who are very committed to support with placements.”

Corndel Limited is another provider new to traineeships but which received a contract of just below £3 million. Its founder and chief executive Sean Williams agreed it is a “significant task” to increase traineeship numbers to the level required but that trainees will, “unfortunately, not be difficult, given the disproportionate impact this economic crisis is having on young people”. 

He explained that the biggest challenge is that most of Corndel’s employer partners are still working exclusively remotely, which means “we have to find meaningful, impactful work experience placements that can be delivered connected-by-technology rather than physically co-located. 

“We need to do this in a way that is compliant with the funding rule guidance whilst meeting the needs of employers and trainees in the new reality we find ourselves in,” he added. 

Williams said his provider had originally planned 880 starts in the six-month timeframe given, and he is still “confident” of hitting that number. 

Elsewhere, another new traineeships provider, Professional Training Solutions, told FE Week it expects to exceed its allocation of £1.6 million. Managing director Jackie Denyer said that early engagement has been “strong” but listed several challenges that may dampen the national effort to increase starts. 

These include the “ringfencing of the regional allocations, which makes it difficult to engage national employers”; ensuring the government’s Kickstart scheme “doesn’t reduce demand for traineeships”; and the recovery time of sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, such as hospitality. 

Steffan Edwards, managing director of Skillcert – a new traineeships provider which won a £1.2 million contract – echoed Denyer’s concern that Kickstart could push recruitment for traineeships down. However, he is “really optimistic” about hitting his target of 300 starts as “we have such high employer demand”. 

Other longstanding traineeship providers that were unsuccessful in the tender are not as confident.

Analysis by Babington, shared with FE Week, shows that more than three-quarters of providers with 19-to-24 traineeship allocations in 2019/20 do not have a contract in 2020/21. 

Babington’s chief executive, David Marsh, said he was “very disappointed” to have his bid in the recent “frustrating” tender rejected as they have been “one of a few providers to have kept the programme alive and have invested significantly in it” since its launch in 2013. 

“The fact that such a large number of existing and successful providers have not been successful while others completely new to the programme have received such large allocations, and smaller providers getting growth of nearly 3,000 per cent, is incredibly concerning and certainly points towards a process that is not fit for purpose,” he told FE Week

“Surely the ESFA should be building on the areas of success and expanding, rather than handing the majority of the money to providers who are new and inexperienced.”

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