Is it time to rethink apprenticeships?

As some of the features of life post-lockdown become clearer, is it time to re-think the approach to apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships are certainly going to have to do their bit. HM Treasury’s current average of economic forecasts for 2020 shows our economy shrinking by 9.2%. Unemployment is rising and may more than double to over 10% of the workforce. The impact will be felt most by those in lower paid and lower skilled jobs. Everyone has been impacted already and the effects of the past few months are going to be with us for years.

In order for apprenticeships to make a real impact though, we’re going to need to think differently. Currently there are 664 different apprenticeships in existence or being developed. These cover a wide range of perfectly valid but often narrow roles. Assistant puppet maker anyone? Leisure duty manager? There are 6 different apprenticeships devoted to different aspects of landscaping and grass maintenance…

There’s nothing wrong with these roles or, indeed, any of the others for which there is an apprenticeship. The problem is how many of the apprentices being trained for these roles will be in the same career and using what they have learnt in a few years’ time. The economic upheaval as a result of Covid means that the pace of change in the labour market – which was rapid before – will speed up. More of us will change jobs, often in the same organisation. Many of us may face a period of unemployment. Some careers that exist now won’t be around in 5 or 10 years’ time. If we have spent £13,000 (the approved funding “cap”) of our shrunken national income on training an assistant puppet maker or £7,000 on a developing a marketing assistant, for how long will the country or, for that matter, the puppet maker or marketeer, see the benefit?

What are the knowledge, skills and behaviours that will be needed by us all as we make our way in the post-Covid world? Here are some suggestions:

Let’s start with knowledge. How we learn is changing rapidly. In education, the shift to a more blended approach – online, webinar, directed self-study has accelerated with Covid-19. But it’s not just been in formal educational settings. How many of us would now go on a course to learn how to use a piece of software or some DIY skills? Most wouldn’t, we’d look on YouTube instead. Some knowledge is also more disposable and shorter-lived. Where is the value in imperfectly memorising huge amounts of information when it’s so easy to look up? What matters increasingly is knowing where to find the information and having the confidence to teach ourselves.

Training will always be part of apprenticeships but, as well as transferring knowledge, we need to be developing apprentices’ skills in how to find and apply knowledge from sources that are trustworthy. Given that half of UK adults use social media to get their news this is a skill that has much wider application than just the workplace.

Thinking about the skills and behaviours that have helped people cope well with lockdown and (I suspect) beyond, what’s been valuable? Resilience, adaptability, flexibility; learning how to juggle the competing demands of home and work; being confident to work outside our usual comfort zones. Knowing how to manage our physical and mental health. The successful apprentices I have spoken to during lockdown have displayed these qualities in abundance. They have also taken ownership of their learning and felt accountable for it. I’m confident that, whatever happens to their jobs, they will thrive in post-Covid Britain.

Rather than getting lost in the maze of different apprenticeships – all of which proudly state their uniqueness with different approaches to assessment and embedded qualifications – should we not be looking at what knowledge, skills and behaviours they have in common and which the economy and society are going to need in the future? Regardless of what may happen to a particular job.

There is a base of underpinning knowledge that all apprentices need. The system already acknowledges this with the inclusion, for example, of functional skills in maths and English, equality and diversity and the Prevent agenda. However, there are omissions. Climate change (which is likely to have a significant impact on the lives of all young people) is not directly included, nor is personal finance.

Each area of specialism for which we have an apprenticeship has its own “core” of knowledge, which doesn’t change much over time. However, the syllabus inevitably lags behind the pace of change in most sectors – here in particular, apprentices need to develop the skills to teach themselves.

At Damar, our first priority post-lockdown is getting all those whose learning has been disrupted back on track. Most of our apprentices have made progress but, inevitably there has been disruption. Our ways of working will be different of course, with far more 1:1 and group-based support delivered using technology than in person. Our team are hard at work redesigning training plans and re-engaging employers and apprentices, particularly as furlough and formal breaks in learning come to an end.

In the longer-term though, our ambition is not just for apprentices to get “back on track”. It is for better and more impactful apprenticeships that help enable individuals and organisations to thrive, whatever the challenges of the years ahead. I am confident this can be done without further radical changes to the apprenticeships system but it will require all of us – providers, employers, regulators,  examination bodies and EPAOs – to think and work differently. That is a challenge that I for one believe is worth taking on.

If you’re interested in being part of apprenticeships that make a difference, do get in touch