Daniel Skinner BAE Systems

Apprenticeship opportunities and standards on the rise

Image credit: BAE Systems

April has seen one of the biggest overhauls of the apprenticeship system for decades and the changes should spell good news for anyone considering an apprenticeship as a career option in the future.

The most significant change is the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. All employers whose wage bill is over £3m per annum will pay the levy (0.5 per cent of their wage bill), whether they currently offer apprenticeships or not. By 2020 all employers, including those who don’t pay the levy, will be able to use the Digital Apprenticeship Service to pay for training and assessment for apprenticeships.

The government hopes by shifting more of the responsibility for paying for the system to the employer, it will encourage more companies to run apprenticeship schemes and that those who already do will improve and expand their offerings. While it isn’t necessary for would-be apprentices to understand the fine detail of the levy and what it means to employers, they should note for the first time it means employees aged 24 and over can attract 90 per cent of funding for apprenticeship training (and there is no upper age limit). Graduates are also eligible.

Ann Watson, chief executive at Semta believes it will offer a “tremendous opportunity” for both employers and employees.

“Funded apprenticeships are now available for every age group in the workforce,” she says. “Employers don’t have to recruit to get the skills they need, they can upskill existing employees.”

Younger candidates should be aware, though, that such changes mean they might face more competition for apprenticeships than they have previously from senior workers who want to gain new skills or pursue new career paths.

The other major change is that from April 2017, responsibility for apprenticeships has shifted from the Department for Education to the newly formed Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA). The measures are all part of the government’s commitment to developing homegrown talent and it aims to deliver three million ‘quality’ apprenticeships by 2020.

Quality is the key word here. Some apprenticeship schemes have been accused of being poor in the past and so groups of employers, known as trailblazers, are working with institutions such as the IET to develop employer-led standards. These will be introduced to drive up quality and ensure programmes are, and remain, relevant to the industry. Once again, these changes should translate into more and better apprenticeship routes for those considering them as a career option.

Semta says that putting employers in the driving seat of standards development is already leading to the creation of new “cutting-edge” engineering apprenticeship standards and believes the levy is encouraging employers to think more creatively about offering apprenticeships in areas where they might not have done so before.

“The obvious benefit to would-be apprentices is an increased amount of good-quality engineering apprenticeships to apply for,” a spokesperson from the organisation says. “And the fact half our workforce will reach retirement age inside a decade means that there will be lots of demand from employers just to replace existing workers and to upskill other workers to fill gaps left by retirement.

“Once you’ve found an engineering apprenticeship that suits you, you can expect to be on a high-quality programme that you can be confident is truly reflective of employer need, because employers themselves have designed the standard underpinning it. So, an engineering apprenticeship really does offer one of the very best prospects for strong career progression. Finally, wages in engineering continue to outpace the national average both at apprentice level, where the average is almost double the legal minimum, and for workers.”

Though positive about the changes, Semta is urging the IfA to keep recognised qualifications a core feature of apprenticeship standards. Watson explains that the government’s original apprenticeship standard insisted only on one end test and no requirement for the apprenticeship to achieve a recognised qualification.

“Engineering employers have argued and won the case for our industry to have continuous assessment and qualifications in our apprenticeships,” she says. “We must not lose this recognition as responsibility transfers.”

Technical apprentice Daniel Skinner has always been a hands-on learner and says this was one of the reasons he felt the apprenticeship route was far more suited to him than a university course. Daniel joined BAE Systems’ apprenticeship programme in 2014 and recently gained a silver medal in the World Skills UK contest in industrial electronics.

He has also been appointed as one of 11 current and recent apprentices on the panel of the IfA and will be involved in helping decide which issues to focus on and ensure that the apprentice voice is heard within the decision-making structure of the institute.

Keen to be actively involved in moulding this new apprenticeship landscape, Daniel also recognises that for those interested in this career pathway, there is no substitute for talking to those who have undertaken an apprenticeship themselves. This is a great way to find out the reality of an apprenticeship and its pros and cons.

He cites the best part of the apprenticeship for him as being able to learn from experienced people that have been working within the company.

“The training and support I have received has allowed me to increase my knowledge and skills as I’ve progressed through the apprenticeship,” he says, adding: “I have been able to earn money while working, allowing me to become more independent, leading to an increased confidence. The company has also given me a lot of extra opportunities, such as participating in World Skills and other on-site events.”

Daniel reckons that if you are a hands-on learner or are good at problem-solving, an apprenticeship could well be the route for you, but notes that he is also proof that it doesn’t have to be a decision between an apprenticeship or a degree. “I am currently undertaking my HNC, from which I hope to progress into completing a degree in electronic engineering,” he explains. 

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