Despite their differences in views, it seems all the party conferences see the issue of apprenticeships as a popular fringe topic. It came up again at a Fabian Society roundtable, which I attended while at the Labour conference in Manchester.
Why this so topical? It seems odd, doesn’t it, given these are tough financial challenging times for employers across both the public and private sectors.
In the public sector, the squeeze is feeling more like a vice and the Institute of Fiscal Studies said earlier this year: “We are one year into a five year programme of cuts of which 90 per cent are still to come”. In the NHS the efficiency savings agenda means tough choices including on jobs and terms and conditions.
A fortnight ago the Chartered Institute of Personal Development produced a new report on the business case for investing in young people. This survey of over 800 employers across all sectors revealed that 71 per cent believed they have a role to play in tackling youth unemployment. But the survey also highlighted too few employers engaging with schools to build employability skills and it also included some contradictions. Many employers have negative perceptions about young people and yet 9 out of 10 employers are satisfied with them once they are in post.
There is some debate about whether employers are doing enough. The fringe events all have examples of some poor quality apprenticeships and endless suggestion of interventions and new rules and of employers not stepping up to the plate. Some suggest regulation as an answer. But we need to be careful that creating new rules and legislation doesn’t add further bureaucracy to an already complex system.
Employers would do more with: better funding of training and increasing awareness of the National Apprentice Service (NAS); their vacancy matching service as well as greater flexibility, transferability and reducing administration. But there is some great stuff going on too that doesn’t always make the press
As I get out and about talking to colleagues it is true that pay, pensions, industrial action and negotiation feature heavily on the day-to-day agenda. It’s sometimes overwhelming.
But there is also a focus on recruitment.
HR directors are keen to share the work they are doing in schools, with local communities and with further education colleges. They also highlight their plans for apprentices and the need to invest in training and development and succession planning.
Is this a distraction from the financial challenge? No – because for HR directors in the NHS the long game is always about talent. They know they need to be seen as good employers able to attract the best from their local communities supporting staff doing tough and demanding jobs. They know this is so important for patient care. And it is supported by some startling statistics. In 2008, the NHS employed 1,300 apprentices. In 2011/12 this rose to 9,000 new starters – a 500 per cent increase.
There is much to commend employers that step up to the plate. When I speak to HR directors actively involved in their communities and the education system, they see themselves as “key actors” in the system rather than “consumers” of it – shaping their system and the organisation in areas like work experience, mentoring, site visits and careers work.
And this all takes on an added importance to managers in the NHS. Managers in the NHS also see the health benefits. They know that work – good, meaningful, satisfying work – is important to health. Often as the largest employers in the area they create a win, win, win, win:
- a win for the people that secure work
- a win in for the organisation that recruits new talent
- a win to the health of the local population
- a win with being seen as good employers committed to the local community they serve!
So let’s not let great become the enemy of the good. Employers want to know that the architecture, the rules, the guidance and funding are going to be consistent and simple supporting apprenticeships growth, not constantly changing and difficult to navigate. That is the easiest way to disengage employers who want to make a difference and want to help and see the business case for employing apprenticeships.