Public Sector Apprenticeships. by Alastair Brooks - Commercial Director

Sometimes well-intentioned policies can have hidden risks as well as clear potential benefits. Here is an example of one policy which, if the Government gets it right, could be in everyone’s interests, but where they need to tread carefully.

The Government are proposing to set a minimum number of Apprenticeships in public sector organisations with more than 250 employees: the target will be a minimum 2.3% starts each year, based on the headcount of employees. We applaud their objective: it’s appropriate for the public sector, and especially larger public sector bodies, to take a national lead in Apprenticeship provision. We also understand the maths and the rationale for the target being 2.3%. However, there are risks associated with this approach, as there always are when fixed targets are used to drive policy.

The first risk is associated with the economic climate. We know that there are large-scale public sector organisations which have always supported Apprenticeships and always will. For many of these, the target would mean increasing their Apprenticeship headcount at a time when their overall headcount is diminishing in order to live within tight budgets, as a result of cuts in public sector funding. They want to do their bit to reach the 3 million target set by the Government, but that is not a simple matter: it can cause them serious management issues, particularly those of human resources and industrial relations. In our response the consultation, we are asking Government to accept this as a reality and to deal with such organisations in a flexible and sympathetic way.

Then there is the issue of quality. We support the Government’s clearly expressed view that Apprenticeships should be real jobs, first and foremost. Yet, in an organisation’s eagerness to comply with its new legal responsibilities and meet the 2.3% recruitment target there could be a danger that it will feel compelled to create extra places that are not sustainably designed, resulting in poorer quality Apprenticeships that do less service to both individual and organisation than their existing ones.

The Government has made it plain on a number of occasions that it considers the re-labelling of existing training schemes run by employers for existing employees as “Apprenticeships” as being legitimate responses so long as those schemes are first adapted to fulfil all the criteria of an Apprenticeship as defined by them. At the same time employers are going to be exempt from the sanctions on miss-using the term “Apprenticeship” contained in the Enterprise Bill. However, it would be a pity if the public sector target were to encourage adaptation to such an extent that it becomes the norm in the public sector at the expense of the high quality Apprenticeships that currently exist.

In the final analysis, tackling the perennial issue of under-performing national productivity is the goal of Government and all who are involved in Apprenticeships, ourselves included. The capacity of any aspect of policy to help reach that goal should always be the yardstick against which it is measured. We are going to continue working closely with our clients – public and private, large and small – to ensure that quality and to enable people to raise the level of their skills while the government, whether national, local or regional will no doubt continue to incentivise business by placing apprenticeships at the heart of largescale commissioning for transformational infrastructure and capital programmes.

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