National Apprenticeship Week puts spotlight on role in securing Britain’s economic future

As National Apprenticeship Week begins, it provides a time to consider the future role that apprenticeships can play in the economy as well as in education policy. 

Some areas of key concern for leaders across industry and policy are the on-going skills shortages and the UK’s continued productivity gap. As thought is directed towards the future of apprenticeships in Britain, the continuing problems around skills and productivity must provide a starting point for any discussion.

Only four per cent of apprenticeships undertaken in 2014/15 were at higher level, and although the growth rate in Higher Level Apprenticeships (HLAs) is significant, we must ensure that new apprenticeship initiatives encourage high-skill training. The UK economy relies upon high-skill sectors such as engineering, which contributed 27.1 per cent of GDP in 2014. Similarly, the UK’s digital economy is forecast to be worth 33 per cent of GDP by 2020, but despite their importance to the UK, these sectors face sharp skills issues. 

There are in fact an estimated 182,000 people with engineering skills required per year to 2022. In the face of such demand, Engineering UK estimates that the number of HLAs in engineering and relevant subjects needs to double. Increasing the numbers of apprenticeships offered at a higher level in industries such as engineering, or digital skills, must come alongside the commitment to increasing the overall number.

Following the successful pledge of achieving two million apprenticeship starts in England between 2010 and 2015, the government has made a new commitment of three million new starts between 2015 and 2020. Yet this pledge to increase the quantity of apprenticeships must not be made at the expense of the quality of provision. 

The move to protect the term “apprenticeship”, giving it the same legal treatment as degrees, is certainly a step in the right direction. However, the need for high-quality standards in tandem with the increase in apprentices requires a more innovative approach to delivering content at scale. Taking advantage of digital learning solutions provides a way to increase quantity whilst ensuring a standard of excellence across all content.

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If the level of training and quality of content remains high, the value of apprenticeships for the British economy will be significant. For businesses, apprenticeships can help them to grow their own talent, developing a motivated, skilled and qualified workforce.

Apprenticeships provide a blended approach, combining practice-based and academic learning. The opportunity to deliver training via supported distance learning reduces the time that employees are away from the business, enabling learners to apply the skills they have learnt directly to the workplace. In this way, apprentices can deliver instant impact to the business.

These benefits are important to training new staff, but also to up-skilling existing employees. In 2014/15, the number of starts by people aged 25 and over remained higher than any other age category, with the biggest increase (38 per cent) amongst those aged 60 and over. This growth suggests that there is room for a broader understanding of who apprenticeships are for. In the light of technological and workplace changes, different generations of workers need to learn continuously in their careers to adapt to an ever-changing present, and apprenticeships can provide a route to up-skilling employees which delivers value for businesses.

Keeping these considerations at the forefront of the debate around National Apprenticeship Week, it is evident that there remains significant room for businesses and educational institutions to work together to provide high-quality, practice-based apprenticeships which equip individuals and employees alike with the skills needed in a changing economy.

The government has given apprenticeships considerable attention in recent years, including making the apprenticeship term protected by law to create future Jamie Olivers and Stella McCartneys.

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