Just as thousands of A-Level students, freshly-opened envelopes in hand, contemplated their future job prospects, news broke that the number of apprenticeships offered by UK employers had dropped markedly, despite last year's introduction of the apprenticeship levy.
The reduction is significant almost across the board, but it will be of particular concern to industries in need of Level 2 apprentices, such as the UK's Manufacturing sector. According to research by the Resolution Foundation, there was a 44% drop-off in Level 2 apprenticeships amongst the 19-24 age group and an even more profound 60% drop-off in those on offer to the 25+ age group. Viewed against the government's ambitious target of having brought through 3 million apprentices by 2020, the scheme appears to have fallen well short of the mark.
At the same time as the precipitous decline in apprentice numbers, there is also criticism of the quality of apprentices coming through; in May 2018, Ofsted's deputy director for further education and skills pointed to a decline in quality whilst comparing the programme to the maligned Train to Gain scheme in the mid-2000s. And whilst there have been relative successes, such as the 54% increase in Level 4 apprenticeships at the 19-24 age group and 45% increase in similar apprenticeships for those ages 25 and over, which point to an increase in the quality of apprentices at higher levels, these do not satisfy the hunger within the Manufacturing sector for high-quality, lower-level apprentices - despite that being one of the government's main aims with the levy.
It is, however, arguably too early to write off the initiative; the introduction of the levy in May 2018 does appear to have been premature without a proper framework in place to process the numbers boasted of by the Government; many companies have lamented the absence of effective apprenticeship training schemes or simply concluded that there is no programme available which fits the their requirements, particularly given the barriers to apprenticeship funding for smaller employers seeking to establish bespoke programmes. The levy, as it is recouped and spent, may yet wash through to provide funding for such programmes.
At the moment the levy will feel like a tax to many in a Manufacturing sector that has generally not yet derived a benefit, but it is an embryonic initiative and, with established training providers such as the AMRC Training Centre , WMG and others developing ever more refined programmes able to meet the broad needs of companies across the Manufacturing sector and companies still able to spend their funds for another year, the hope will remain that benefits will filter through in time, even if the scheme falls short of its 3 million target.
Ciaran Dearden is an Associate Solicitor in Freeths' Dispute Resolution team with particular expertise in working in the manufacturing and technology sector. firstname.lastname@example.org
Of course, we’re only a year in; employers and training providers are still adjusting to the new system, levy payers have another year to spend their funds, and many are likely deciding whether they will share these with other, smaller employers along their supply chain. This time next year, we could be having a very different conversation.