Iain McIlwee, BWF Chief Executive Officer
Apprenticeships is a subject that tends excite passionate debate within our industry – it is such an intrinsic part of how our industry has evolved and many of the owners and senior management team in members of the BWF started life as an apprentice. We know in the wood trades we need over 4,000 apprentices joining the sector every year in the next three years, just to stand still and we hear fantastic success stories and of course a few problem encounters. Fundamentally, however, as a sector we maintain the highest ratio of apprentices in the construction sector and we need to see the standards, availability and support available improve.
On the surface of it, the Summer Budget this year supported this aspiration, emphasising that apprentices are a big part of the future of the UK Economy, we need 3 million. Beneath the headlines, we remain concerned that the term “apprentice” may become further distorted to hit the target and new bureaucracy, increased cost and funding cuts making it all the more harder for employers to bring in an apprentice. We know changes to the funding stream for apprentices, in-line with the recommendations in the Richard’s Review are on the way, but detail of the voucher system has not yet been announced. Further changing to the funding and support may also arise from the new apprentice levy (announced in the Budget) – how will this work in conjunction with the CITB Levy or indeed will it replace it and if so, what will happen to the CITB? Ultimately we value the CITB and the work they do and many of you will have heard at our recent Members Day from Adrian Belton about the direction he is trying to take things in order to modernise and improve – we look forward to finding out the result of the triennial review and hope that it is evolution over revolution on the cards.
We need simplicity and better support and at the same time we want to uphold quality and differentiate between trainee and apprentice. The alternative makes it even harder to gain parity of esteem between academia and apprenticeships and even harder to attract talent into our sector. If we are to start building an understanding of the value of apprenticeships it needs to start further back and consideration in any review of GCSE is critical combined with fundamentally better careers advice in schools and better co-ordination of programmes to engage with schools. At the moment the process is too fragmented, there is no formal, consistent or clear way to deliver and, as a result, we struggle to find the target (unless they know to look for us), let alone get the information in the right format when we do.
These are the points that we raised in our meeting with senior BIS representatives earlier this month- these are the people developing the detail earlier this month. In the meeting the BIS team outlined encouraging plans to speed up the trailblazer process and drive to ensure that we do not get fragmentation of apprenticeships that are too specific (more akin to trainee) and focus on careers – some kind of review panel established by the ITB seems to be the logical way to progress this. They also displayed a genuine desire to engage with small businesses in helping to find mechanisms that work for them. Many of our questions could not be answered as the detail is simply not there and this means we still have opportunity to shape it.
This is where you come in, and to this end we are seeking volunteers to trial the apprentice voucher system, simplicity is paramount. We have been advised that there is a digital prototype of the voucher system and the BIS team are seeking to test it with employers – especially micro/small/medium businesses. This is through a one-hour feedback session in which one the researchers visits the business, shows prototype on laptop, and asks the employer a number of questions around the service. The aim is to gather feedback so that the service can then be shaped as closely as possible to employers' needs. They are interested to speak to this businesses who currently have apprentices, but are also particularly interested in meeting with micro/small/medium businesses who have not considered apprenticeships before. The researchers are based in Milton Keynes and Coventry so can reach easily businesses that are located within or near to London, South East in general, and the Midlands.
If you feel you can help in this really important process, please do let us know or indeed if you have any comments on the way apprenticeship standards are developing in the UK, please do let us know.