Local authorities face a skills crisis across many of their services, yet pressures on budgets mean they can’t always stretch to expensive attraction and career development campaigns. As we begin National Apprenticeship Week (5-11 February), how can apprenticeships help to keep the public sector thriving?
Councils’ budget struggles have been well-publicised in recent months, with an increasing number of local authorities issuing section 114 notices to declare themselves ‘effectively bankrupt’. Against this financial backdrop, like many employers in the private and public sectors, they still need to recruit and retain staff.
At a recent roundtable of the Public Services People Managers’ Association (PPMA), delegates discussed ways they could benefit from using apprenticeships to boost skills and retention within local authorities, particularly given they pay towards the apprenticeship levy.
PPMA president Gordon McFarlane explained that councils are leaning on the levy to support both short-term and long-term skills needs. For example, many childcare settings have been placed under pressure due to the government’s recent 30-hours free childcare pledge; training up early years practitioners and managers can address the resulting workforce issues. Social care faces a similar staffing crisis, so apprenticeships can be effective here.
Public sector apprenticeships
Longer term, apprenticeships can help with retention, he argued. A recent report from the Social Market Foundation and Chartered Management Institute found that low morale and issues with retention were hampering performance in local government.
Offering new and existing employees a viable career path and route to a vocation within local government helps them to feel valued and more loyal, he said. At the same time, local authorities can forge stronger bonds with local schools and colleges as they work with them to build a pipeline of new recruits.
But despite these advantages, councils still struggle to attract applicants for apprenticeships, so how can they respond?
At Leicestershire County Council, a working group has been set up to look at how the authority can make the most of its apprenticeship levy funding. Senior learning and development advisor Bethany Randall explains that because there are so many different departments and roles open to apprenticeships, they tend to be looked after as a bolt-on to managers’ day jobs rather than by a dedicated team.
The council is currently running 68 different apprenticeship standards, with about 150 live apprentices working on a range of courses between levels 2 and 6. “We use the level 2 apprenticeships in areas with hard-to-fill posts such as waste, environment and transport, making it more appealing to applicants,” she says. “There are limitations with budget of course – there are lots of things we’d love to do but external factors mean we can’t, so the majority of the funding is used to upskill internally.”
This includes a cohort studying for a public health practitioner higher-level apprenticeship at level 6, which will create a much-needed pipeline of future leaders for health trusts in the local authority. “Even though we can’t use the levy so much for recruitment at the moment it is beneficial to us to plug gaps and for retention. Because of the financial issues facing local authorities, we have to get creative,” Randall adds.
Where they are not able to use all of their apprenticeship levy funding, Leicestershire uses its 25% transfer allowance to support other relevant and local causes such as childcare or social care providers. Paul Lowis, head of L&D at the council, says using levy funding for these sectors both within the authority and via the transfer has been invaluable.
Unlike central government or other public services such as the armed forces or NHS, local government doesn’t yet have a national recruitment campaign” – Mark Fowler, Luton Borough Council
“The council have utilised the levy to address specific skills gaps in a number of areas including the early years sector in Leicestershire by upskilling staff in nurseries through the attainment of professional qualifications,” he says.
“This approach followed an Ofsted inspection that raised concerns about the lack of qualified staff in the sector. We have also been proactive in developing a career pathway for non-qualified social care staff enabling them to become qualified social workers and thereby retaining their skills and knowledge within the organisation.”
One area in which apprenticeships can support local authorities is in attraction, with younger workers often valuing a clear career development path and transparent investment in their training.
“Nationally, local government struggles to attract young people to apply for roles,” points out Mark Fowler, deputy chief executive of Luton Borough Council. “Unlike central government or other public services such as the armed forces or NHS, local government doesn’t yet have a national recruitment campaign.”
Luton’s recruitment team works closely with local schools and colleges to promote a range of entry paths into the council, including apprenticeships. “We attend careers fairs where we encourage students to explore a wide range of career options and make it clear that whatever role they start in there is opportunity within local government to move to other service lines,” he adds.
The council has moved its recruitment in-house through a partnership with Commercial Services Group, meaning it has saved money for community outreach projects. This means it can offer insight days, work experience and placements alongside a range of apprenticeships in roles such as business support and administration. The partnership, called Connect2Luton, engages young people through channels such as TikTok in the hope they can see a career ahead in local government.
Earn while you learn
Jess Tordeur, a payroll apprentice at Basildon Borough Council, won PPMA apprentice of the year in 2023, and is grateful for the career growth her course has supplied her.
Tordeur chose to give up a paramedic sciences degree during the Covid pandemic and look for a job. She says: “None of the career talks I had attended at school, college or university spoke about career opportunities in local government, but my mum had an apprentice on her team when she worked for a council and suggested I research opportunities in local government.”
After the application process, she was offered apprenticeships by several service lines in Basildon but decided to go with the payroll team as “I felt the job would give me a real sense of purpose”. She has since qualified as a payroll technician with the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals, a qualification she can use to boost her career in the public or private sector. “Best of all I was paid while I learned rather than accumulating student debt,” she adds.
Accessing apprenticeship levy funding can support local authorities to create career paths and reskill existing staff – the main investment is in time rather than money, but the long-term payback can be worth it.
Whether that’s to address the early years recruitment crisis or develop senior managers for leadership, apprenticeships have a vital role to play, and the PPMA offers some key tips for councils looking to use their levy effectively:
- Work closely with schools, colleges and universities to make them aware of the opportunities available in local government.
- Promote apprenticeships internally for upskilling or retraining existing employees, or to prepare staff for leadership and management positions.
- Think about the application experience – apprentices will use this to gauge whether you offer a work culture they will thrive in.
- Support apprentices to balance work and study by offering compassion, and encourage cohorts to support one another.