Should we use apprenticeships to train managers?

The apprenticeship levy has attracted a lot of criticism of late, with many questioning why the scope is now so broad it’s possible to gain an MBA. Roisin Woolnough looks at the competing arguments for more management-focused apprenticeships.

The traditional apprenticeship model is a familiar one: a young person learning the skills to become proficient in a new trade, learning while doing the job.

Historically, those skills have been for very practical roles such as plumbing, carpentry and engineering. In recent years – and particularly with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017 – the scope and focus of apprenticeships has broadened. Apprentices can now even work towards MBAs, meaning that managers and leaders are also eligible to take up apprenticeship training.

This broadening in scope has been somewhat controversial, with some industry figures and bodies welcoming it and others expressing serious reservations.

Stephanie Baxter,  Institute of Engineering and Technology skills, education and innovation lead, thinks it is good to combine technical training with management and leadership skills. She says anything that encourages more people into engineering is to be applauded.

Skills mix

“We are facing a huge shortage of engineers in the UK and productivity will really suffer if we don’t do something about it now. A good apprentice will have a balance of technical and practical skills, as well as those needed in the workplace, such as management and leadership,” she says. “The nature of work has changed and skills such as leadership and management are really important for all professionals, including engineers.”

David Willett, corporate director at the Open University, agrees that widening the focus of apprenticeships to include MBAs is a positive move for UK businesses and the economy as a whole.

Like Baxter, he says it is essential that the government and employers make a concerted effort to address the UK’s skills crisis and that this decision will help move things in the right direction.

He says: “The UK has a shortage of higher-level skills, with the Open University Business Barometer revealing that 90% of employers have struggled to recruit workers with the right skills in the past 12 months, so it’s excellent that apprenticeships have been broadened out to include higher and degree apprenticeships to address this issue.”

Accidental managers

Willett says that incorporating MBAs into apprenticeship schemes will result in UK organisations investing more in the skills and capabilities of managers and leaders, something that’s vital if the UK is to overcome what the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) calls the “accidental manager” problem.

According to the CMI, this is “someone who is experienced in their role, has excelled and is rewarded with being promoted to a management position without any guidance”. In other words, they are “thrown in at the deep end”.

Investment in management and leadership skills is just as important as investment in technical skills, if the UK is to address its current skills and productivity crisis, argues Willett.

Employers need to move on from the traditional view of apprentices being just relevant to young people at entry level in the workplace, he adds. “Having agile and adaptable senior managers and leaders is crucial for organisations looking to grow or facing significant changes in the near future.

“Savvy business leaders will use the levy as an opportunity to invest in the skills of their entire organisation. The beauty of the way apprenticeships now work is that they can build upon the skills of anyone from junior level all the way through to senior leadership.

“The training needed at the beginning of a career will be vastly different to that required at management level, for example, but continuous learning is required throughout a person’s career in order for the organisation to perform effectively.”

Ready for anything

Susan Laing, dean of Teeside University Business School, also believes that apprenticeship MBAs have a critically important role to play in ensuring individuals and organisations are ready to face the challenges of the modern business landscape.

“We need to support managers and leaders in this complex and dynamic world. Historically, MBAs have been very content driven, but our new apprenticeship MBA is very focused on people development.”

Laing says this merging of MBAs and apprenticeships is great for making MBAs more practical, relevant and more in-tune with the current needs of managers and leaders. “The traditional approach of MBAs involved case studies,” she says. “Instead, with our apprenticeship MBA we ask people to bring their work challenges with them and we put them on the table and work on them in a confidential way.”

Laing says that by bringing MBAs under the apprenticeship umbrella, it will be easier for HR and L&D to draw on budgets to develop mid-level managers.

Re-badging learning?

However, recent research from the CIPD claims that the new levy will not result in an increase in training, whether for practical apprenticeships or for MBAs. Its report suggests that many employers will simply use the levy to re-badge existing learning and pass it off as apprenticeship training.

The CIPD found that almost half (46%) of levy-paying employers think the levy will encourage their organisation to re-badge current training as a means of recouping their allowance.

Among that group, more than half (52%) say they will be re-badging existing training activity into level 2 apprenticeships, equivalent to five GCSEs.

Furthermore, of those employers paying it, only 17% support the levy in its current form. Over half (53%) would prefer a training levy instead.

Lizzie Crowley, skills adviser at the CIPD, is not surprised by the findings. She says: “There’s a real risk of abuse to the system and re-badging of existing training schemes internally to reclaim the levy money. The government needs to keep an eye on those types of apprenticeships to ensure they are offering the development planned.”

Routes into the labour market

But the potential for organisations to simply re-badge existing training isn’t Crowley’s only reservation about the increased training scope of the levy.

She is also worried that MBA training could rise at the expense of technical training and at the expense of young people. “More senior people who are more highly skilled are in many cases already getting access to training. We need to address the low volume of training to people in organisations in lower roles. And we need to help give young people a route into the labour market,” she adds.

What about Baxter and Willett’s claims that incorporating MBAs into the apprenticeship levy will help address the UK’s productivity crisis?

Crowley thinks it will have little impact. “Management and leadership apprenticeships are certainly not the tools to address the UK’s underperformance, particularly if they are used to re-badge existing training. It will make no difference to productivity and performance then.”

By broadening out the scope of apprenticeships, Crowley thinks the Government has potentially undermined the brand of apprenticeships and why they exist.

Long way to go

Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers and a former apprentice himself, is also concerned that the levy could have a detrimental effect on technical training in the UK.

A big advocate of apprenticeships per se, he says they should focus on what they were originally designed to do – help young people gain the skills and experience they need to enter and thrive in the world of work.

“Dedicated leadership and management development courses on apprenticeships only serve to dilute the hugely essential technical skills training that this country is starved of,” he says.

“Apprenticeships have been dominating conversations around vocational training and study for the past couple of years now, which is something I’ve been pleased about, but we all still have a long way to go to with them, and this new format with management training is part of the problem.”

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