How apprenticeships can help widen the public sector's talent pool

8 Feb 17

Increasing the number of apprenticeships in the public sector could help to meet service delivery challenges as well as presenting a way to make savings

It has been a busy week for the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Last week they set out their concerns over the government's target of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 and called for the target of 2.3% of the public sector workforce to be apprentices to be scrapped. This week they've published their Green Budget showing an ever-widening gap in the public finances and the risk of almost permanent austerity.

So far, so depressing. And in a sense, the 2.3% target is a relatively arbitrary figure, equating to 200,000 apprenticeships by 2020. There are no direct consequences for public sector organisations not hitting the target either. Instead it is meant to focus attention and raise ambitions as the government moves toward its overall 3 million target for apprenticeships.

One response, then, could be for public sector employers to ensure they get their 'fair share' back from the apprenticeship levy – the forthcoming payroll tax on large employers – perhaps by rebadging existing training as apprenticeships. In fact, that's a risk across the board, not just in the public sector and would mean a missed opportunity to tackle our skills gaps.

But the drive to increase public sector apprenticeships, coupled with the forthcoming Apprenticeship Levy, can help widen access to a much larger talent pool and improve public services – helping to meet the challenges of constrained finances given the depressing economic projections from the IFS. Critically, this will only happen if apprenticeships are of the highest quality and part of a wider workforce development strategy.

Look at some of the changes already starting to happen. These include the development of new apprenticeship routes into education and teaching roles, prison and criminal justice officers, and childcare. This is not about getting a workforce on the cheap, it's about ensuring that more people with the talent to do these jobs (but who might not have gone to university) can find a route in.

The levy is likely to turbo-charge these efforts. The NHS alone will be spending £200m per year on the levy, and plans 28,000 apprenticeships in 2017/18 (a 75% rise on this year).

Indeed, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust won last year's Festival of Learning Employer of the Year Award, organised by Learning and Work Institute. Their apprenticeship scheme allowed more people to access healthcare support, business administration, and integrated health and social care roles. And it wasn't just about widening the talent pool, it was about delivering better services and saving money: £100,000 saved on agency and temporary staff fees alone in the first year of the scheme.

This points to the key lesson. It would be perfectly possible to hit the public sector target and the government's overall 3 million target, but without significantly increasing opportunity or helping employers get the workforce they need. In other words, to hit the target and miss the point.

But Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust shows there's a different way. Where apprenticeships are of the highest quality, they give employers access to a workforce they wouldn't have had before: one that's highly motivated and talented. Where they are about reaching out to a wider group of potential employees, they can help break down barriers and increase diversity. And where the increase in apprenticeships is about improving public services and finding new ways of working, part of a wider workforce development plan, it can help to improve the quality and efficiency of public services too.

The public sector is incredibly diverse. There is no 'one size fits all' answer or approach, and arbitrary targets with hasty implementation won't be effective. But there is a common challenge, which is the ongoing constraints in the public finances and the need to access all the talents of our country as we forge a post-Brexit future.

The drive for more apprenticeships in the public sector offers an opportunity to think about how apprenticeships can increase access to talented people and support new ways of working and delivering public services.

  •   Increasing the number of apprenticeships in the public sector could help to meet service delivery challenges as well as presenting a way to make savings
    Stephen Evans

    Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, an independent policy and research organisation dedicated to lifelong learning, full employment and inclusion. Members include colleges, local authorities, third sector organisations, universities, businesses and iconic organisations in civil society

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