Back to their futures, by Vivienne Russell

3 Apr 08
Apprenticeships used to be seen as old hat. But now they've had a ministerial makeover and are viewed as vital in helping to rejuvenate an increasingly ageing public sector workforce. Vivienne Russell reports

04 April 2008

Apprenticeships used to be seen as old hat. But now they've had a ministerial makeover and are viewed as vital in helping to rejuvenate an increasingly ageing public sector workforce. Vivienne Russell reports

Any Kent County Council finance managers looking for an easy budget cut might be interested to know there's an employee who's willing to work for nothing. Eighteen-year-old Stephen Jeffrey is one of 52 young people undertaking an apprenticeship with the council – and he's enjoying it so much he says the money doesn't matter.

The job is 'fantastic', says Jeffrey, whose apprenticeship is in business and administration. 'I really do enjoy it. I would do it for free if it came down to it. I really like going into work.'

There is remuneration, of course. Jeffrey receives £80 a week for the work he puts in. There's also help with CV writing and interview skills and a guaranteed job interview at the end of it, somewhere at the council.

'I went on to the sixth form to do some AS levels,' Jeffrey explains. 'But it wasn't for me; I didn't enjoy it. And even if you've got the qualifications, you still don't have the work experience, which is what most jobs want. When I saw the apprenticeship ad on the KCC website, which said you could learn, get work experience and get paid at the same time, I thought I'd give it a go.'

Such enthusiasm must gladden the hearts of even the most jaded ministers and is surely encouragement that their faith in apprenticeships is not misplaced. Work-based training schemes suffered a post-1960s slump, condemned as male-dominated, old-fashioned and unable to compete with the more exciting options offered by universities and polytechnics. But they have been making a quiet comeback and have emerged reformed, renewed and ready to take on the challenges of the twenty-first century.

A central plank of the government's skills policy, they also feature increasingly in its rhetoric. 'Talent' is one of the prime minister's favourite buzzwords, and just last week, at the launch of the local election campaign, he emphasised that the number of apprenticeships had quadrupled under Labour and were set to double again. And this week Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell announced plans to create 500 additional apprenticeship places in government departments.

An ancient form of training, apprenticeships stretch back to the guilds of the Middle Ages. They adapted to take on the new trades that came with industrialisation and again to reflect our more service-based society. Today, they are available in more than 180 occupational areas, ranging from floristry, beauty therapy and customer services to electronic engineering and motor mechanics. Construction is the largest area – in 2006/07, more than 13% of the 127,000 people who started an apprenticeship in England chose construction. Also popular are hairdressing (10%), customer service (9.1%) and business administration (8.9%).

Apprentices are paid a modest salary by their employer, while their training is publicly funded, via the Learning and Skills Council. Much of the learning takes place in the workplace, but apprentices are also released for tuition at a local college or other external training provider.

Modern apprenticeships are split into three components: a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) at Level 2, which requires achievement of practical competencies in a workplace setting; a demonstration of key skills in numeracy, communication and IT; and a technical certificate, which is a free-standing qualification providing the theory to support the NVQ competence.

Content is decided by the Sector Skills Council for the industry, which ensures apprenticeships are relevant and recognised.

For ministers, apprenticeships tick a handy number of policy boxes. They are a major way of ensuring young people remain in education and training as the statutory participation age is raised to 17 by 2013 and to 18 by 2015; they are useful in tackling entrenched unemployment problems; and they will help Britain to meet the ever-pressing need to improve the skills of the workforce and so sharpen the nation's competitive edge.

Ministers want apprenticeships to become a 'mainstream option' for young people, with enough places to be available by 2013 for all suitably qualified young people who want one.

In accordance with the aspiration set out in Lord Leitch's 2006 Skills Review, the government is budgeting and working towards there being 400,000 apprentices in England by 2020. This would mean more than 250,000 starts and 190,000 successful completions.

Such ambition presents challenges. Young apprentices are exempt from minimum wage legislation and a major roll-out of the scheme could raise trade union hackles. It also demands massive input from employers. The House of Lords economic affairs select committee has backed the renovation and expansion of apprenticeships but criticised the hitherto marginal status of employers. Its July 2007 report said: 'The government has given individual employers too little involvement in how apprenticeships are run, rendering them little more than passive partners.' It said employers needed to be at the centre of provision and that within five years, all government funding for these schemes should go directly to employers, rather than through training providers.

At the end of January, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills set out how this expansion of apprenticeships was to be delivered. Buried in its strategy document is the recognition that the public sector is not pulling its weight as an employer.

Collectively, the sector directly employs 20% of the national workforce, but provides less than 10% of apprenticeship places. Numbers are tiny. Just 3.1% of local government employees aged 16–24 are participating in an apprenticeship. The figures are even worse in central government and the NHS, at 2.2% and 2.6% respectively.

Skills Secretary John Denham told Public Finance that the public sector needs to do more, given it employs a fifth of the national workforce. 'I am working with Cabinet colleagues to formulate appropriate targets for each part of the public sector, reflecting their particular circumstances,' he said.

More targets might be the last thing the sector wants, but experts say this one at least should play to its own advantage as well as the nation's. The public sector workforce is ageing, with just 7% of workers aged between 16 and 24, compared with 16% in the private sector.

John McGurk, skills adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says apprenticeships offer the public sector a good way to rejuvenate its workforce – of giving it a 'blood transfusion'.

Yet, despite this obvious benefit, public sector provision remains embarrassingly low, he says. 'The public sector's never got anywhere near to the level it needs to get to. That's pitiful and that's mainly because the government has never had a strategy.'

Martin Stein, principal consultant in talent and skills at the Improvement and Development Agency, says that, in local government at least, apprenticeships have been stereotyped and marginalised – the value they can add to councils has not been recognised and mainstreamed.

'Authorities sectionalise apprenticeships,' he tells PF. 'They see them as occupationally based and are happy to settle for quite small numbers.' The government's new emphasis on the schemes and the prospect of targets for councils is a 'shot across the bows', he adds. If the sector is to succeed in attracting more young people to come and work for it, then apprenticeships offer an ideal way.

Some councils have already recognised this and taken their own action. The Kent scheme that Stephen Jeffrey is on has been up and running since October 2006. The council set itself a target to create 1,000 apprenticeship opportunities for young people across the county by 2010, a quarter of which should come from within the council itself.

The genesis behind the idea was to tackle the number of young people not in education, employment or training – the so-called Neets. While overall the council has a relatively low level of Neets – 4% compared with the national average of 11% – in some of the seasonal towns around Kent's east coast the figure is a staggeringly high 38%.

'We thought that if we're going to be promoting the apprenticeship route as the best way forward, as a way of engaging young people, we have to be leading the way,' explains social inclusion officer Lucy-Ann Bett, who manages the scheme.

'The academic route is not right for all young people; we recognise that. KCC is the largest employer in the county and we have opportunities other people don't across a diverse range of skill areas.'

The council offers apprenticeships in five areas: business and administration; customer service; catering; health and social care; and child care.

To date, 111 young people have enrolled on the council's apprenticeship programme, dubbed Kent Success. Of the 37 who have completed their qualification, 14 have found jobs elsewhere and 16 have remained with the council.

One such is Charlotte Harris. She completed her apprenticeship in business and administration in November and found a job as a business support assistant with the council's change and development team a month later. In a sleek black suit, she has a poise and maturity that belies her 18 years. She explains that, like many other Kent apprentices, she started out in the sixth form before deciding that a vocational route would be more appropriate. She now seems set on a career in local government.

'I'm very happy; it was the right choice for me. I'm on a year's secondment until November but after that I might go to a different directorate. There are lots of options for me.'

At the other end of the country, Hartlepool Borough Council has offered apprenticeships since 1996 and takes on between ten and 15 apprentices each year. Lucy Armstrong, workforce development manager at the council, says the scheme was inherited from the old Cleveland County Council after it was disaggregated.

'We tried to make it our own,' she says. 'But as the years have gone on, it has become a way of enticing young people into local government.'

Local interest is huge, Armstrong says, with young people ringing up for details all year round. But, as the council is one of the smallest in the country, there is limited capacity to take on any more.

Mandy Bannister, who works alongside Armstrong as a workforce development officer, is herself a graduate of the Hartlepool apprentice scheme. Like the Kent apprentices, Bannister, now 23, had a pragmatic approach to her post-16 options. 'I didn't really want to go on to university to do a degree, so I thought if I don't want to do a degree there's no point in doing my A-levels at this point,' she says.

'I thought the apprenticeship would have the balance of getting some practical work experience and academic qualifications at the same time.' The prospect of getting paid was a further attraction, she adds.

But schemes such as those of Kent and Hartlepool seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

'For the size of the local government sector, we don't engage and involve with apprenticeships as much as people would like us to,' says Stein.

'Surveys we've done in the past would confirm that. Authorities that are setting targets are quite rare.' The IDA is trying to promote apprenticeships through its knowledge-sharing website and has posted a range of good practice materials on its Talent Management Community of Practice section.

Such a bottom-up, best practice-led approach to apprenticeship might be the preferable option. The CIPD's McGurk is wary of anything too centrally driven and target-led; just because the government controls the public sector does not mean it should pull a lever to meet its own targets.

A talent management approach is what is needed and the lead, he says, needs to come from chief executives and human resources directors rather than Whitehall civil servants.

He cites the construction industry, where the apprenticeship approach has extended from traditional craft areas such as bricklaying and plumbing to cover the industry's unique and specific needs in management and finance areas as well.

'Arguably you could say the same for the public sector,' McGurk says. 'The management skills and the service delivery skills are specific and the public sector probably needs to have its own training path. I think that's the sell for the public sector; to have young people in training to do that.'

Stein echoes much of this thinking. Viewing apprenticeship as a core element in a council's workforce strategy is the big shift local government needs to make, he says.

'People aren't mainstreaming apprenticeships. Authorities need to see this from a holistic, workforce development point of view and see that apprenticeships are just as valid as post-graduate qualifications or succession planning for senior management.'

This is certainly the case in Kent. It is Bett's ambition to make sure the scheme is sustainable and lasts well beyond the council's own 2010 target. It needs to be integral to the council's workforce development approach, she says, with individual directorates within the council embracing it and setting their own targets.

There are also plans to filter the model down to Kent's 12 district councils as well.

'We're trying to build it as a programme so it's the ethos that they're signing up to,' Bett says. 'It's about going out to the rest of the public sector and saying, “If KCC can do it, there's no reason you can't”.'

This joined-up approach and the idea of a generic public sector apprenticeship offers tantalising possibilities and mirrors the joint working the government is trying to foster in other areas of public policy.

With local agencies having to work ever more closely together as part of the 'place-shaping' agenda, Stein suggests that apprenticeships could be fashioned to function across organisations, rather than just within them.

There are also practical reasons why it makes sense, he says. 'If size is an issue and district councils can't afford the downtime of training somebody up, then share the placement load and have an apprentice for a period of time rather than a two-year set programme.

'That makes apprenticeship more attractive and allows people to understand what public service is all about.'


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