Elaine Essery asks if employers and young people are getting a good deal out of Modern Apprenticeships
To deliver or to contract out? That is the question surrounding Modern Apprenticeship training. The majority of employers use outside providers, but are they – and their apprentices – getting a good deal? And are employers helping providers get the best results?
Statistics from the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) reveal that employers training their own staff account for just 13 per cent of work-based providers inspected. Including employer providers who train other organisations’ employees as well as their own might double the total, but it still means that around 75 per cent of employers contract out Modern Apprenticeship delivery. Evidence suggests that for Advanced Modern Apprenticeships in particular, provision is better and completion rates higher among employer providers than among other providers.
“There’s no question that the quality tends to be very high but that’s because those employers are often subsidising the whole training package quite substantially,” says Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers (ALP).
Employers are making substantial outlays acknowledges Marinos Piphitis, director of the Learning and Skills Council’s (LSC) National Contracts Service (NCS), yet he also points out that employers in some sectors, such as hospitality, may only spend as much as the LSC gives.
However, Piphitis cautions against tarring all employers with the same brush. “There are examples, especially in the well-endowed training areas like engineering, motor vehicles and the gas industry, where the track record of employers is very good, and ALI inspection scores prove they’re right at the top end of attainment.”
Trends are showing that delivery directly by employers in some occupational areas is getting better results. “We’re starting to see some grade twos in retail, customer service and other areas, and grade ones in engineering. But you have to balance that with the fact that those employers will also recruit very well-motivated young people,” says Piphitis.
NCS contracts directly with multi-site employers with at least 1,000 employees and the potential for at least 100 learners. Its big-name clients can cream off the most able young people, leaving smaller companies – which mostly rely on outside learning providers – struggling with a lower-quality apprentice intake.
The unlevel playing field is all too familiar to Bob Clarke of the National Federation of Engineering Colleges. “Larger employers can compete more easily in the marketplace for young people and have the pick of the applicants because of their reputation,” he says. “SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) pick up learners who are marginal in terms of likelihood of completing an Advanced Modern Apprenticeship framework. They are more difficult to deal with.”
It is also far more difficult to gain the involvement of medium-sized employers, such as hard-pressed engineering firms, who have to concentrate on getting the product out of the door. This imbalance ultimately has an influence on the skills pool, as there are less highly-skilled apprentices in the marketplace as a result.
The closeness of the relationship between provider and employer is key to the success of Modern Apprenticeship training. Best results are seen where there is strong employer involvement and good links between provider training and what the apprentice is doing in the workplace. But while many employers see delivery as the provider’s job, providers rely on employer commitment to achieve the outcomes of Modern Apprenticeship frameworks.
With headquarters and a large training centre in Southampton, the provider, known as Apprenticeship Training, contracts with LSCs in Hampshire, Surrey and South London to provide training in building engineering services. It provides a complete service from recruitment and selection testing through to direct training and administration. Around 70 per cent of its customers employ fewer than 10 people.
“It’s a constant battle trying to engage employers’ interest,” says business development manager Grant Docking. “About 25 per cent are keen to track the progress of their apprentices, but others regard it as our job and are more interested in the apprentice as a spare pair of hands.”
It is this attitude that contributes to low completion rates. And key skills is a big stumbling block.
“Some companies can’t see any benefits of key skills,” Docking says. “Their attitude is: if the apprentice has got their NVQ and technical certificate, is technically proficient on site and is doing the job that I require them to do, forget about key skills – we don’t want them.”
Apprentice Training tries to tackle key skills from the start of the programme, linking them to the NVQ. But where an apprentice is not able to complete them within the period of funding, they becomes a ‘leaver’, who failed to achieve the framework.
“It does make you wonder whether there’s something wrong with the system when you get youngsters who’ve come in green from school and after a two- or three-year period, they’re out earning £600 a week, but because they haven’t got their key skills, they are considered as a leaver and we’ve failed,” says Docking.
Westwind Air Bearings recognises the importance of integrating key skills into the technical training so that apprentices understand their relevance. The company is a direct provider of AMA training, taking five apprentices a year into its 400-strong workforce. It previously used a private provider, but brought provision in-house to get better results. “We have a high precision product that requires skilled engineers but what the private provider accepted as competent did not meet our standards,” says training manager Jim O’Neil.
“There’s no way that the funding covers what it costs us to train and it takes up a lot of resources, but we have to do it, it’s a simple as that.” Westwind Air Bearings uses a college to provide further education. O’Neil knows the tutors personally and speaks to them on a weekly basis. The company also has 19 trained in-house assessors who only assess in their own skill area. It gained a grade one for its training under the Training Standards Council (TSC) and kept it when inspected by ALI this year.
Retail employer James Beattie plc has also maintained its top grade under the TSC and ALI, and has been awarded Beacon status as a model provider. The company contracts directly with the LSC to fund a 15-month Foundation Modern Apprenticeship programme but puts in as much of its own funding to make up the deficit. There are 30 trainees at the company’s Wolverhampton store, which employs 1,000 people. Trainees are not employed but receive a training allowance, and 80 to 90 per cent are taken on when they complete. Those who are not, readily find positions elsewhere.
“The beauty of it is that we’ve got them all in-house, seconded to a department, and all our department managers are NVQ assessors so they’re getting one-to-one training every day,” says personnel manager, Rosalind Wood. “If you contract it out, they see someone about once a month.”
Off-the-job training is delivered in the training room and trainees attend a week’s residential course. “It is a commitment, it is time-consuming and it does take a lot of resources but it’s cost- effective,” says Wood. “I’ve got 30 full-time youngsters here and it’s cheaper than if I employed 30 full-timers.”
So why don’t more employers train their own apprentices? Bureaucracy could be the short answer. “It comes with a lot of administration and the goalposts move frequently,” Wood admits.
O’Neil recently visited Germany to look at the successful training systems there and says we need to look at the bureaucracy involved in Modern Apprenticeship training here.
“They don’t have the bureaucracy in Germany and it gives them more time to train,” he says, pointing to tasks such as returns documentation to the LSCs. “The paperwork can be quite a chore and companies farm that out to private providers to ease the burden. It has got better under the LSC, but if they could reduce the bureaucracy, it may entice more companies to train for themselves.”
Piphitis insists that the LSC is trying hard to reduce the burden but feels large employers can accommodate this. It is inappropriate for smaller businesses to try to be learning providers and handle everything that an LSC contract entails, he says. “What we need are excellent providers who can do the job for them. I think there are training providers who are perfectly able to provide that service.”
Many of them are ALP members. ALP has 50 college members and 400 independents, whose core business is to engage with employers, identify what they want and deliver it. The simplest form of contract between them and their customers is where the employer commits to paying the wages of the apprentices and releasing them for training. The supplier arranges everything else and gets money from the LSC for the training, co-ordination and administration.
According to chief executive Graham Hoyle, most employers are satisfied with this arrangement. They are happy to commit to the training being done but want somebody else to do it and look after everything that goes with. “It’s not just the training but linking the on and off-the-job elements, satisfying the LSC, filling in forms, getting in claims, making returns. If the complete package is not offered, a lot of employers will not engage,” he says. “The vast majority will engage but not at the cost of bureaucracy, paperwork and admin. They’re not passing the buck, they’re just being practical.”
While the Government continues its push to increase the number of Modern Apprenticeships, employer involvement is growing, says Piphitis.
“Generally, commitment is improving and I think it’s a factor of the world economy. You can’t be competitive in a global economy without having your most expensive resource at its prime and employers recognise that,” he adds.