How apprenticeships can develop the future beyond the pandemic

Employers in England have a renewed appetite for apprenticeships and work-based learning this year. Almost three quarters (70%) say apprenticeships will be vital to their recovery from the disruption caused by COVID-19, with 72% planning to take on more apprentices over the next 12 months. This approach is supported by the fact that 66% of employers who embraced apprenticeships during the pandemic say it enabled them to recover more quickly. These are some of the many positive findings from  Build The Future Apprenticeship Survey, a new report from The Open University (OU) that explores the outlook for apprenticeships in the coming months.

To discuss the findings, The OU recently ran a webinar called How apprenticeships can develop the future beyond the pandemic, in conjunction with The 5% Club. Martin Couzins, learning expert and Director of Insights at Insights Media, chaired the webinar, which took place during National Apprenticeship Week, and featured L&D experts from The Open University, Balfour Beatty, Salts Healthcare and Network Rail on the panel.

Laura Burley, Apprenticeships Ambassador at the OU, was one of the panellists. She says the findings, which came from a survey of over 600 employers in England in early January 2021, show that an increasing number of employers recognise the value of apprenticeships and plan to harness them to build back this year. “The main takeaway is that there is general positivity about how apprenticeships can rebuild the future, which is really encouraging,” she says. “Nine in ten businesses who hire apprentices agree that they are enabling their organisation to proactively build their future.”

That nine in ten figure (70%) is a substantial increase of 20% from The OU’s Business Barometer report 2020, when 50% of employers said work-based learning and apprenticeships would be vital to their organisation’s recovery from the pandemic. Similarly, the finding that 72% of employers plan to hire apprentices in the next 12 months is an increase from 60% in the Business Barometer report. The research for the Business Barometer survey was carried out in the summer of 2020, so there has been a big increase in positivity in a relatively short space of time, some of which could be attributed to the COVID-19 vaccine rollouts.

The report also shows that there is still some short term nervousness about the economic and business outlook, with the result that half of the employers surveyed don’t feel they can commit to apprenticeships right now. And a number of them might have to let apprentices go.

But, that nervousness might be short lived. The report found that 50% of businesses that don’t have any apprentices among their workforce at the moment plan to remedy that and invest in apprenticeships in the near future.  Laura says these are all very positive signs that apprenticeships will soon be on the rise again and that the medium to long term outlook is strong. “Even though the immediate situation is quite uncertain, we’re starting to see these green shoots. And interestingly, amongst those who said that apprenticeships will be vital to their organisation’s recovery, that was split equally between SMEs and large businesses.”

For Chris Shirley, Apprenticeship Services Manager at Network Rail, the standout statistic in the report for him is the one that says 75% of businesses that hire apprentices forge links with their local area. However, Chris thinks more needs to be done to educate employers and individuals about the breadth and depth of apprenticeships and eligibility. “They really are available for all levels,” he says. Network Rail currently has over 1,500 apprentices, spread across more than 30 apprenticeship programmes and Shirley thinks apprenticeships are a fantastic opportunity for employers to increase and diversify their talent pool and gain access to people with different skills and experiences.

Jo Volk, Director of Talent & Development at Balfour Beatty, and Trustee at The 5% Club, says the optimism highlighted in the report reflects the infrastructure group’s own view and experience of apprenticeships.

“The thing I was most thankful to see is optimism,” says Jo. “Balfour Beatty has employed apprentices for over 35 years and they are part of our future plans and strategies. We firmly and absolutely believe apprentices are part of the future.” Balfour Beatty currently employs about 400 apprentices in the UK.

Likewise, Lee Cattermole, Learning and Development Manager at Salts Healthcare, also a member of the West Midlands Apprentice Ambassadors Network, agrees that apprenticeships present a huge opportunity for employers and should be part of strategic thinking around the long term development of skills. Lee says The OU report highlights just how important that opportunity is, particularly in a time of such uncertainty. He references several key findings from the report:

  • Two in three businesses (66%) say apprenticeships have enabled them to bounce back more quickly from the economic fallout of the pandemic
  • 74% say apprenticeships improve retention rates in their organisation
  • 77% report an increase in productivity
  • 80% have witnessed a transformative impact on the learner

Lee says these combined results present a really compelling case for apprenticeships. “With those statistics, why wouldn’t you want to embrace apprenticeships as part of your people development plan?”

One of the questions Martin asked the panel was “Is this a watershed moment?” The answer was, probably yes, as many employers have witnessed first-hand how apprenticeships have enabled them to remain agile and recover from the pandemic disruption.

Laura thinks that as employers consider the changed business and skills landscape, it’s time for them to think seriously about apprenticeships as a way to upskill and reskill the workforce, as well as a way to tap into a more diverse talent pool. The Business Barometer 2020 found that employers spent £6.6 million on buying in temporary skills last year, which as Burley says, was a costly and very short term solution. “We can use this opportunity, this watershed moment, to reassess the skills we need and grow from within,” she says.

The webinar recording is now available to view on-demand. To access the recording, click here.
You can also access all our other on-demand events from our events page

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