Why the public sector must embrace apprenticeships

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Requirements for public sector employers to ensure a certain percentage of their workforce is apprentices may pose some organisational challenges, but Simon Rouse from PeoplePlus explains how apprenticeships can also help public sector organisations become more productive and better reflect their communities. 

Eighteen months ago, the government introduced a public sector quota for apprenticeships, requiring all public bodies with 250 or more employees to have apprentices make up 2.3% of their workforce.

The reforms to the apprenticeship system are about creating opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds, allowing them to gain the skills they need to progress in the workplace. But equally they are about giving employers the tools to enhance their workforce capabilities. A ‘win-win’ for learners and organisations alike.

Of course, the new requirements present organisational challenges (although for many in the public sector, they represent a continuation of existing recruitment and development policies).

But having seen, time and again, just how effective apprenticeship programmes are in responding to critical workforce pressures:- addressing skills gaps, improving retention, reducing spend on agency support, creating progression paths for the workforce; at PeoplePlus, we are in no doubt about the opportunity they present for public bodies.

Part of the solution

Compounded by relentless technology advances, the skills required in just about every profession today are evolving at an increasing pace, with employers constantly playing catch-up.

While this productivity challenge is both sector-wide and nationwide, it has created specific issues for public bodies. Pockets across the public sector are rapidly approaching a ‘cliff edge’ as the baby-boomer generation reaches retirement.

But as well as bringing in younger talent, apprenticeships can help with the exchange of knowledge from a younger, typically more tech-savvy, generation to older colleagues.

At the same time, more people than ever before are eligible to start an apprenticeship, opening a host of talent development opportunities to HR leaders. This increased flexibility means that apprenticeships must no longer be viewed as the preserve of the school leaver. Graduates, long-serving colleagues and senior managers can all now be considered apprentice material.

The qualification is a multi-purpose tool in the attraction and retention of talent to the public sector – no matter the career stage of the individual under training.

All employers, regardless of sector, who have an employee payroll of £3 million or more a year, must now pay the levy. This affects the public sector as it includes groups of companies or bodies: so, academies, universities and other large public bodies are liable to pay it.

Paying the levy comes with several significant benefits. In the health sector for example, we have seen NHS Trusts reporting that it has allowed them to focus on funding higher-level and more wide-ranging standards to account for the specialisms needed in healthcare.

Other public bodies with operations in rural areas have noted that the levy has been instrumental in helping them upskill current staff as they do not have a transient employee base and most of their staff stay with them for long periods of time.

Reflecting communities

The public sector has traditionally been a leader in promoting diversity within the workforce, but of course there is more work to be done here.

Apprenticeships can help public bodies better reflect the communities they serve as they make skills progression more accessible through the absence of tuition fees – thus circumventing the ‘barrier’ of student debt.

The benefit for society is evident in statistics released by the Department for Education, which show that 53% of all apprenticeship starts nationally in 2016/17 were by women; starts by apprentices of black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds increased in 2016/17 to 11.2%; and 27,130 starts in 2016/17 were individuals who declared a disability and/or learning difficulty.

Our public institutions should support and be represented by people from all walks of life and apprenticeships have the potential to be an increasingly important driver of social mobility.

The revised apprenticeship funding regime and relaxed eligibility criteria have led to a fresh employer focus on the opportunities they present for workforce development. As a result, while apprenticeships can claim a history dating back to the 12th Century, their evolution may never have been more rapid than it is today.

Before the levy was introduced, many public bodies offered apprenticeships to meet tactical demand. Today, we are seeing more and more employers, of all shapes and sizes, taking on apprentices and recognising the many strategic business benefits that they bring.

There are now apprenticeships available in just about every sector, right up to degree level and the number of people starting on the new, higher quality apprenticeships continues to rise. Apprenticeships can make a massive contribution to our communities and public bodies alike and hope that more and more institutions will join us in making apprenticeships a mainstay of public service employment.

Simon Rouse

About Simon Rouse

Simon Rouse is managing director of PeoplePlus
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