‘Deeply flawed’ public sector apprenticeship target under fire

PPMA president says organisations lack resources to recruit 200,000 apprentices by 2020

An ambitious apprenticeships target from the Department for Education, challenging the public sector to recruit 200,000 more apprentices by 2020, has been met with mixed responses from industry experts.

Announcing the measure last week, skills minister Robert Halfon said the target would create thousands of quality career opportunities in the public sector, building on the government’s commitment to create three million apprenticeships by 2020.

“For our public sector to be the very best in the world, we need talented and ambitious people of all ages and from every background,” Halfon said. “Businesses across the country have well and truly got behind apprenticeships. Now it is time to ensure the public sector reaps the benefits of apprenticeships and young people get the opportunities they deserve.”

But some public sector bodies have criticised the announcement, describing the target as “deeply flawed”. Sue Evans, president of the Public Services People Managers’ association (PPMA) and head of HR at Warwickshire County Council, has been set an apprenticeship levy target of 250, but said the requirement that apprentices make up 2.3 per cent of the workforce by 2020 failed to consider labour supply and the considerable strain the public sector is facing in the wake of widespread budget cuts.

“It has taken us five years to recruit 150 apprentices through our existing programme, so to take on an additional 250 in the next three years will be the equivalent of running a small school,” Evans said. “I don’t have the administrative resource or the support resources to manage that number of apprentices across our workforce.

“The government has taken a large slice of our budgets to pay the levy. We can’t recoup it because we can’t hit the targets they want, but we will still have to pay the apprentices’ wages. Why do they think, as we are making significant cuts, struggling with a huge hole in the social care budget and pressure to hold council tax down, that we can suddenly take on and pay a raft of new people?”

The target is being championed by the civil service, which has pledged to achieve 30,000 apprenticeship starts in England by 2020. Head of Apprenticeships, Jake McClure said its new apprenticeship strategy will show the work the Cabinet Office has already undertaken ahead of the introduction of the apprenticeship levy this April. “We want to help our departments fully understand the complexities but more importantly the opportunities afforded by the move to standards and the introduction of the levy, and treat this as strategic workforce reform and a different and exciting way of looking at the business,” McClure said.

“For the UK, in terms of social mobility, this is a fantastic opportunity to put apprenticeships up there with a traditional university route in terms of parity of esteem, and bring schools, parents and employers together to make people aware of the advantages of alternative routes to employment. It’s a great chance to earn while you learn, and at the end of it you will be fully competent in your job.”

But Evans warned that public sector bodies that are struggling to make up the numbers could ‘dodge’ the system by repurposing existing schemes, and many would be incapable of supporting the rapid uptake of apprentices. For the levy to have any hope of success, Evans said, the government needs to fundamentally reassess what it is hoping to achieve by bringing more apprentices into the workforce, and be more realistic about its targets.

“The apprenticeship levy is badly thought through, badly planned and, with three months to go, there’s no evidence that the online tools are going to work,” she said.

“Those of us who are committed to apprenticeships and have worked with them in the true spirit of bringing young people into the workplace, giving them quality training and a real start to a career, are aghast at this ham-fisted attempt to railroad large numbers through.”

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