What the apprenticeship levy’s 5-year legacy teaches us

Alan Hiddleston, from edtech firm D2L, says the apprenticeship levy requires reform to ensure it suits evolving business needs and the job market.

Five years ago, the apprenticeship levy was introduced, marking a strong commitment by the UK government to make apprenticeships a success. Taking part in the scheme, employers who meet an annual pay bill threshold access funds through a digital service to pay for apprenticeships.

However, UK apprenticeship participation has been declining since 2016/17. In last year’s academic year, 713,000 apprenticeships were undertaken, the lowest number since 2010/11. Now, the levy is under review, providing an opportunity to assess how apprenticeships can be reshaped for today’s business, education and learners.

Does the apprenticeship levy work for employers and educators?

The levy is not short of critics. In fact, last year the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) asserted that it has failed on every measure and will undermine investment in skills and economic recovery without significant reform.

CIPD’s research revealed that nearly half of large employers say reform to a more flexible training levy would help them improve workplace productivity and business performance. Meanwhile, an overwhelming 95% of respondents to a British Retail Consortium (BRC) survey said the system needs to change.

The government has committed to a review. Whilst this is no doubt welcomed, alongside the practicalities of funding there should also be a review of how we value, deliver and measure learning through apprenticeships. A cohesive approach to addressing the skills deficit and building the infrastructure needed to train workers of today and tomorrow needs collaboration between government, education and enterprise.

A raft of skills challenges

UK businesses continue to grapple with a shortage of digital skills. In 2020, research from Microsoft revealed that 80 per cent of UK leaders believe investment in digital skills will be important to post-pandemic economic recovery. Yet, more than two-thirds (69%) of business leaders said they believe their organisation is currently facing a digital skills gap.

Pre-pandemic, technology and automation were already transforming the way businesses operate and therefore the skills they need. Since then, a rapid move to remote and hybrid working models has only served to accelerate the demand for digitally capable employees.
Added to this, the departure of many overseas workers has exacerbated a talent shortage, the worst, it is said, since the late 1990s.

In the recent Spring Statement address, chancellor Rishi Sunak acknowledged that the UK ‘lags’ international peers in adult technical skills and that, “UK employers spend just half the European average on training their employees”.

What needs to happen?

Training opportunities are essential to develop and maintain much-needed skills. Apprenticeships provide an ideal seeding ground for lifelong learning at work.

The government does need to work with enterprises to optimise how apprenticeship funding works, but businesses must also look at ways to ensure apprenticeships are a success and work with educators on outcomes.

Learning in the workplace and the classroom is changing. A shift away from traditional learning models has been happening for many years and this has been hastened by the pandemic. Businesses, and education, can now use technology, including modern learning platforms, to ensure a single cohesive experience for learners wherever they are and however they learn best.

This form of learning delivery also lends itself to shorter courses, which suit the apprenticeship model. Indeed, the BRC has called out the need for high-quality short courses, including functional and digital skills. Smaller learning modules chunk up knowledge acquisition into bitesize chunks. This is ideal for workers and learners of all ages who may re-enter the education system and top up their skills as they progress through their careers.

Flexible eLearning helps bridge skills gaps

A modular, omnichannel approach to education and training helps meet apprenticeships’ need for flexible forms of learning. It also provides the scope to reframe course content as skills needs demand.

Online and on-mobile, apprentices can keep up with their studies in their place of learning, at work, at home and at any other time. This suits the lifestyle of the flexi-worker/learner and helps employers provide the adaptability that has been so much in demand since 2020.

However, enterprises and education know only too well that one-off eLearning modules or courses don’t necessarily provide learners with the breadth of experience needed to meet some complex learning needs. Communication, leadership and other ‘soft’ skills are built up over time with an emphasis on practice. This too is achievable through flexible platform-based learning that builds the demonstration of skills and feedback from peers, tutors and managers into the learning process.

Learning that adapts to the changing world of work

The apprenticeship levy’s five-year legacy has taught us the need for ongoing collaboration between government, enterprise and education. Apprenticeships should be reviewed in line with evolving business challenges and the current job market and that should be in terms of both funding and training and learning models. Learning delivery in-person, online and in the workplace adapts to the changing world of work as we now know it, catering for flexible working and learning schedules, and helping to embed much-needed digital skills.

Alan Hiddleston is the senior director of international corporate learning at D2L

Read more: ‘Degree apprenticeships are driving better inclusivity and diversity outcomes in tech’ – Dr Amna Khan

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