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Apprenticeships: The answer to UK talent shortage?  

Apprenticeships could be the answer to a shortage of talent. 

The UK seems to be suffering from a shortage of talent and there are a number of reasons for this. One of the reasons is demographics, with the baby boomers fast retiring, leaving generations much smaller in size behind them in the workplace. Secondly, we have a skills mismatch – there are a surplus of workers with certain skills that are not in as high demand and a shortage of workers who hold highly demanded skills.  

Brexit has also strained the labour supply and our ability to employ from the European skills pool. To date this talent pool has not been replaced by anything that can match it size and accessibility either. Finally, new jobs are being created (often as a result of new and fast developing technologies) which workers simply are not geared up for.  

Some believe that apprenticeships could be the answer to this shortage of talent. When we think of the speed of change in the world of work and in the economy, it becomes clear that there is an eternal need for learning and development.  

For this learning and development to be efficient, it needs to be integrated into the work sphere and workflow as much as possible. The workflow and work sphere should also be influencing learning. In that sense, apprenticeships are the natural answer; allowing individuals to reinvent themselves and have access to accelerated development.  

Hesitancy to embrace apprenticeships  

Governments understand this and have therefore talked about apprenticeships extensively and try to influence the narrative around apprenticeships. They have also developed apprenticeship standards which are decided upon by employer groups in specific industries and introduced a levy to encourage employers to engage apprentices.  

Despite this, many businesses choose to lose the levy as a tax rather than invest in their people. The most recent government statistics show that apprenticeship starts in large employers in 2020/21 were 14% lower than in 2016/17 (pre levy introduction) – only 28 enterprises per 1000 had apprenticeship starts in 2020/21. Why is this? 

It may be for a few reasons. Some employers are worried about losing employees, they believe that if they invest money and training in them, the apprentice will likely leave the employer for other opportunities at the end of the course.  

There is also a gap in understanding around apprenticeships. Many employers are still not clear what engaging an apprentice entail and how it could benefit their business. This indicates that despite its efforts, there is still a lack of clear guidance from the government.  

Additionally, apprenticeships can be seen as disruptive in an environment where there is a tight labour supply. Employers need to meet a 20% off the job training requirement, but many employers would rather pay the levy and not have to deal with the disruption to its people planning. Some may also not have the luxury of being able to sustain having workers off the job for a period of time.  

Key stakeholders such as students, employers and educational institutions need to get fully onboard with apprenticeships for the system to work, but we can see that they are currently not committed to it in enough numbers. This is not surprising given that there has been no shift in collective thinking yet.  

Perhaps this is because apprenticeship role models are few and far between; highly regarded professionals seldom attribute their success to an apprenticeship. It is still far more common to hear that they took a more traditional educational route into the world of work, such as by way of a renowned university. It seems then that more needs to be done to fix the branding of apprenticeships.  

Some believe that apprenticeships could be the answer to this shortage of talent. When we think of the speed of change in the world of work and in the economy, it becomes clear that there is an eternal need for learning and development.

A new International Labour Standard for apprenticeships 

This is not only an issue recognised in the UK, but also recognised on the international stage too. The International Labour Organisation at its 2022 International Labour Conference considered the development of a new International Labour Standard on apprenticeships. The focus of this being to promote quality apprenticeships globally and move away from the notion that apprenticeships are solely for young individuals in low skilled or technical jobs.  

Governments in the UK have been trying to change the reality and they are doing so steadily. They have worked with employers to develop apprenticeship standards for a range of activities, right up to masters level.  

Top ten employers for apprenticeships 

We can see from the recent government list of the top 10 apprenticeship employers for 2022 that although those securing the top spots are direct government organisations who likely come under direct political pressure to operate quality apprenticeships, there are also several private companies reaching the top ten, showing signs of improvement. The top ten employers are as follows: 

  1. British Army 
  2. Royal Navy 
  3. BT 
  4. Royal Air Force 
  5. Department of Work and Pensions 
  6. Clarkson Evans 
  7. Mitchells & Butlers 
  8. RSM 
  9. BAE Systems 
  10. Grant Thornton 

If your business needs support understanding or managing apprenticeships, please contact our employment solicitors. 

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