The skills minister has admitted the government “must” increase the number of young people starting apprenticeships and committed to “reduce friction” for small employers using the apprenticeships system.
But he conceded that the chancellor is unlikely to reintroduce apprenticeship cash incentives for employers in this week’s spring statement.
Alex Burghart used his speech to open up this year’s FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference to outline his priorities when it comes to apprenticeships before taking questions from the audience.
Here are the key takeaways
1. ‘I don’t want us to forget the young’
Apprenticeship starts among young people have been steadily decreasing since the government’s levy reforms in 2017.
In 2018/19, under 19s made up 24.8 per cent of all starts, this dropped to 23.6 per cent in 2019/20 and in 2020/21 it fell to 20.3 per cent.
It’s an issue the skills minister has identified and has promised to tackle – starting with a letter to school leavers.
He told conference: “I don’t want us to forget the young because there is something unquestionably special about the school leaver setting out to learn their craft.
“The economy is hungry for skills. We know that the young are hungry for apprenticeships.
“I want more young people to know about these options and these opportunities. And that’s why in National Apprenticeship Week, back in February, I wrote to all year 11, year 12 and year 13 pupils in schools and their parents to tell them about the great opportunities offered by apprenticeships.
“Too often, I found that 19 and 20 year old apprentices when I asked them how they found out about the opportunities, they told me that they know someone who’d done it, they told me that they found out about it on Google. Very, very few told me that they’d been told about it as part of their education or part of their time in school. And we want to start changing that, we want to cast the net wider.”
Burghart also said he has “heard loudly” that too many young people find the recruitment process for apprenticeships difficult to navigate. “We have to fix this,” he said. “My department is now looking at how we can support young people in the application process and work with employers to make sure that they present the benefits to their business of hiring apprentices.
“And we’re addressing how we support providers and employers to advertise apprenticeship vacancies, so that these are accessible to young people. We’re also going to continue to work with UCAS and capitalise on the excellent work it does connect young people with a range of opportunities available to them when they’re considering their next steps after school and college.”
2. Plans to tackle ‘burdensome’ system for SMEs
The digital apprenticeship service was launched in April 2017 but was only for levy-paying employers to manage and spend their apprenticeship funding.
Small employers 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”.
“I want to reassure you all that in the department we’ve heard and that we’re starting in depth discussions with providing groups over the coming months to fully understand the impact and to identify areas where we can make improvements to our systems,” he told delegates.
“And I’ve asked my officials to bring people together to have a series of hackathons on the system, make sure that we can make it as effective as it can be. To make sure that we reduce as much friction as possible so that we can encourage more SMEs to get involved.”
3. No extension to employer cash incentives
Burghart used his speech to hail the sector’s efforts in recovering apprenticeship start numbers to pre-pandemic levels.
One audience member told the minister he believed this was largely to do with the £3,000 employer cash incentives that were introduced in 2020 but end this month.
Burghart said it is “really good to hear that incentives were well received” but admitted there are no plans to reintroduce them.
“I don’t think that the chancellor is going to extend it or reintroduce it during his spring statement on Wednesday,” he said.
“Rishi was very clear that it is an expensive intervention that we brought in keep the whole system going during the uniquely complex time of Covid.
“We are now moving to, you know, touchwood, a post Covid time. And so those incentives and support mechanisms put in place have to fall away.”
4. ‘We need you’
Burghart finished his speech by saying this is an “extremely exciting time to be in technical education” before making a rallying call to the sector.
“It’s the reforms that we’ve been working on, the government has been working on for the better part of a decade, and starting to gather pace and make a real difference to learners and employers to make this a success.
“We need you here to continue working with us and championing high quality apprenticeships.”