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Why it’s time to think about your (lack of) apprenticeship strategy

8 Feb 2021 By Mark Corden

At the start of National Apprenticeship Week, Mark Corden explains what businesses need to consider to make the most of the funding available

Receiving both the prize for best apprenticeship scheme and overall winner at the CIPD People Management Awards in 2018 was a fantastic endorsement of two years’ hard work for the Specsavers apprenticeship team, our business managers and apprentices. We’d proved that apprentices make an improved contribution over non-apprentices; we’d defined an apprenticeship strategy that was valued by the business; we’d built our capacity and capability to deliver it; and we’d managed to reinvest nearly all of the apprenticeship levy that we’d been paying since it was introduced. Top that journey off with a first-time ‘good’ rating from Ofsted and several external awards, it’s safe to say that apprenticeships at Specsavers are good for business.

Since that time, I’ve had a regular stream of connection requests from HR, L&D and talent practitioners who have been given responsibility for apprenticeships by their HRDs and are seeking support and advice. I’d be surprised if colleagues in a people management or leadership role in the UK have missed the change in how apprenticeships are managed and delivered in recent years, but I’m amazed at how many businesses don’t seem to have asked themselves the right questions to inform how they can benefit from them. Broadly, organisations seem to fall into three camps:

they invested in a strategy to address people capability and implemented it using internal resources and, in some case, external resources;

they didn’t want to lose the money they paid as apprenticeship levy, so selected a third party or two to deliver a programme; or

they couldn’t see the value vs effort benefit so haven’t taken any action

Nearly four years since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, and there is a sizable and growing pot of funds (more than £2bn, as reported in January 2020) that is dormant, and a few connections I’ve been speaking to are seeing their individual business pot sit at more than £2m.

So there’s a huge investment fund available, but the opportunity is not as blunt as chasing the money for the sake of it – the ‘use it or lose it’ argument. The opportunity is to harness these funds to build people capability that a business needs at a time where we’re still in a state of turbulence in managing capacity and capability, with reduced budgets for L&D. 

My advice is to think again about apprenticeships, but change the perspective in the questions asked as part of the thinking. Focus less on government statistics, funding rates and compliance. The mechanics of apprenticeships have a place and need to be understood, but knowing why you're using apprenticeships, defining your model and promoting business benefits cement them in your future talent and people strategies need to come first. Here are a few suggestions to help companies start their strategic reviews of apprenticeships:

Define your purpose and vision

  • What are your high skills shortage roles with potential for high retention?
  • What are the options to deliver the capability for those roles? Is an apprenticeship a relevant and appropriate route to use?
  • For low skills shortage and low retention roles, do apprenticeships provide any value to you over and above other development?

Choose an implementation model that suits your business

  • Consider the opportunity to build your own apprenticeship delivery capability
  • Use the published evidence and data sources to help make an informed choice of third-party providers
  • Monitor, report and manage performance, and make changes if it doesn’t meet your business or apprentice needs

Build a strategic and operational communications plan

  • Integrate your strategy and communications – don’t run talent, L&D and apprenticeships in isolation of each other
  • Identify your legends – those who may have been an apprentice previously and have ‘done good’
  • Identify your heroes – those in decision-making roles who have used apprenticeships previously and value them
  • Get your business outcomes on the agenda and show the impact in data
  • Bang the apprenticeship drum constantly and loudly whenever you can

Times are tough, but opportunities are there – what better time for businesses to conduct a strategic review of apprenticeships and unlock that dormant investment fund?

Mark Corden is director of Corden Consulting and former head of apprenticeships at Specsavers

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