A fantastic opportunity awaits you

Eight months on from the government’s announcement of major training reforms, Anne Milton, minister for apprenticeships and skills at the Department for Education (DfE), tells PSE’s Luana Salles about the extraordinary benefits that the new apprenticeship levy can bring to the public sector.

When I ask Anne Milton, apprenticeship and skills minister at the DfE, whether the government’s target of ensuring 2.3% of the public sector workforce is made up of apprentices will compromise service quality, she says I’m talking to the wrong person.

Milton, who was appointed to the role in June this year after spells at the Treasury, Department of Health and House of Commons, once worked as an NHS district nurse for a whopping 25 years, specialising in palliative care. She was trained at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London during the time when the nursing profession was largely trained in hospital schools and as part of on-the-job learning, before Project 2000 shook up the profession by demanding that staff had to study off-site for a diploma or a degree.

“Nurse training in those days was essentially an apprenticeship,” she told me. “We were the workforce on the wards. And we had blocks of training out of our time on the wards, so we were in every way the apprentices you see today – so, you know, earning while we were learning, with a qualification at the end of it.

“It was quite controversial when it was moved over to universities, meaning you had to be a graduate. There was a lot of fuss about whether that was the best way to learn.

“And now, we’re just starting our new nursing apprenticeships – so it’s quite interesting how things go around.

“There’s no question that apprentices in any way, in the public sector or the private sector, will diminish quality. I would argue, rather, the opposite – I think they will raise quality. Because not only do you have the qualification, but you also have the practical experience.”

Understanding the new system

It’s been seven months since the apprenticeship levy was introduced in May, which, as I’m sure you’ve heard, means employers with wage bills of over £3m a year have been contributing to a central pot that is then distributed to businesses in order to finance new apprenticeships.

This is all part of the government’s ambitious commitment to three million new apprenticeship starts by 2020, all driven through a devolved structure that puts employers at the driving seat.

But some concerns were raised when recent figures from the DfE indicated that the number of starts had actually decreased since the levy was introduced, as explained by the Institute for Fiscal studies on page 29. When she was grilled about this issue at an Education Committee inquiry earlier this year, secretary of state Justine Greening said her department had already anticipated this drop, owed to the fact that employers were taking some time to consider how to invest the new money.

Milton agreed with Greening’s position, telling me that the process has so far gone as the government was expecting it to. “There’s been a lot of change in this area – the apprenticeship levy, setting up the Institute for Apprenticeships. We knew it would take time, and we knew there would be a fall in starts at this time.

“The reasons for that are quite varied. We know that employers have 24 months to spend this money, and so it’s not unreasonable that they will be taking the time to work out how best to spend it. They need time to make sure they maximise their opportunities and, for some employers who maybe haven’t taken apprentices before, this is a whole new area that they will need to get involved with.

“What we’re doing, and what I will do as minister, is make sure that we work with employers to help them understand the system. We’ll give them the opportunity to talk to other employers who have been employing apprentices, maybe for some time, and really understand the opportunities that it offers their business.”

Not just about Brexit

As with everything else in the UK these days, one major cloud of uncertainty that looms over the issue of training is Brexit: the larger the constraints on trade, migration and employment, the bigger the threat to a country whose industries already face the risk of a major skills shortage in the coming years.

But the minister was quick to point out that, Brexit aside, this isn’t a British problem: it’s a worldwide phenomenon, and one that she witnessed first-hand at the WorldSkills Competition held in Abu Dhabi this year.

“Every single minister from every single country said the same: we have a worldwide skills shortage,” she noted. “This isn’t just on the back of Brexit or a skills shortage in this country: every single country knows we need to get a more skilled population.

“What we need to do is make sure that we’re ahead of the game, and have addressed it sooner than anywhere else.”

And according to her, the benefits of doing so are clear: at the end of the day, it’s about the engineering company that has been employing apprentices for years as a way to combat the skills gap in STEM; it’s about the minority groups who have faced systemic barriers to employment now finding a new route into work; it’s about those at higher levels who need a faster track into a management role; it’s about older people, who want to take advantage not only of their former skills but of their added life experience after some time away; it’s about the people, mostly women, whose careers can be reclaimed after a long period of leave due to maternity or caring duties – something which Milton, who is also minister for women, is particularly passionate about.

“It goes way beyond the opportunity of getting a more skilled workforce,” she agreed.

“An apprentice of whatever age brings something very different to the workplace, and therefore something very different to an employer and a business. And they have a unique contribution to make in the success of a business.

“They’re often local, they’re often loyal, and they’re often full of innovative ideas which, for an open-minded employer or business, offers a huge opportunity.”

As with everything any government does, the minister argued, there was some kickback and scepticism when the policy was first introduced. But once employers start to see the opportunity at hand, they will begin to understand why businesses who have always employed apprentices are so evangelical about the benefits.

Ultimately, Milton’s message was clear: “If you’re an employer, if you’re thinking about a career change, if you’re a school leaver, then go onto the websites, have a look at what apprenticeships are available, and see what a fantastic opportunity awaits you.”

Top image © Jack Taylor/PA Wire





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