Over the past 20 years, NCAL has worked with around 50 large employers to help them create, establish, sustain and improve apprenticeship programmes. We’ve done this primarily as part of our original consultancy services. We’ve seen every kind of employer, every type of apprenticeship, and have found solutions for every problem or difficulty you can imagine. Working with large employers is second nature to us; it’s in our DNA.

There are some obvious benefits of having a successful apprenticeship programme in your business, such as:

  • staff retention is improved;

  • productivity goes up;

  • succession planning becomes easier;

  • your organisation’s learning culture is enhanced;

  • you develop home-grown talent.

However, our experience has shown us that there are a lot of misconceptions about apprenticeship programmes. We have spent many years helping large employers to understand their responsibilities to apprentices. We have learnt many lessons, and here are just a few of the most important ones:

  • Do not expect to make any surplus or profit out of your levy fund.
    You will find that it is very hard to deliver high quality apprenticeships with the available money.  Regardless of whether you use a training provider or become an Employer Provider (note 1), you will be investing more than just your levy funds into creating a great apprenticeship programme.

  • Prepare for additional administration, bureaucracy, compliance and scrutiny.
    You may think that your levy fund belongs to your organisation, but it doesn’t. It belongs to the government and they administer its expenditure. This means certain rules and regulations must be adhered to and specific systems must be complied with. The finances fall outside of normal commercial arrangements and parameters. Everything is auditable and your apprenticeships are subject to Ofsted inspection.

  • Make sure you have the highest level of responsibility and understanding for your apprenticeship programme.
    Managing an apprenticeship programme is not a junior role. It needs effective management and it requires good governance, a concept that will not be necessarily familiar to many large employers.  Your managing directors and your CEOs need to understand why you are running apprenticeships, what you plan to do with them, how they benefit the business, how you are going to develop the programme and so on.  

  • Apprentices’ line managers must fully understand and support the programme too.
    It’s not enough that your apprentices and your trainers know what’s going on. You must also make sure those staff who are supervising your apprentices also understand, and get fully involved in, the apprenticeship.

  • Invest in building and training the right team to manage your apprenticeships.
    You are about to enter into a different world if you are using levy funds to deliver apprenticeships.  Do not expect any existing staff to find it easy to take on responsibility for the programme. There is a lot to learn, and it will take time to bring anyone up to speed.

  • Be willing to invest time in off-the-job training for apprentices.
    The new apprenticeship standards require apprentices to benefit from 20 per cent off-the-job training. This doesn’t necessarily mean one day a week in a classroom. Various models are being designed by different employers and providers, but the essence is that you must be prepared to invest in proper learning opportunities for apprentices.

  • Manage your training partners.
    Once you’ve decided on a delivery model and procured the partners to help you, don’t just sit back and let it go. You need robust systems, methods and resources to quality assure all aspects of your apprenticeships. Unfortunately, you cannot unconditionally trust your partners, suppliers and subcontractors to do a great job. You have to check, evaluate and continuously improve the relationship and processes that support your programme.

  • Don’t rush into it.
    We’ve lost track of the number of managing directors and finance directors who issue edicts to their L&D staff that the programme should start tomorrow and they want 500 apprentices on board within the next month. Frankly, this is utter nonsense. If you’re new to apprenticeships, take your time over it.  Learn what needs to be done. Talk with other employers. Pilot your ideas and refine them.  Remember, your levy fund isn’t going anywhere for a couple of years, so you have time to get your apprenticeships right from the outset.

We could go on but this covers the key points we want to make. So, the short answers to the main questions are simply this:

Q.    Why offer apprenticeships?
A.    Because they are good for your business and your people, your local communities and your country.

Q.    Why wouldn’t you offer apprenticeships?
A.    Because you’re more worried about the money than the benefits, and you’d rather take short-cuts than deliver high quality apprenticeships.

Ouch! Like we said at the beginning, perhaps we are a little unconventional but 20 years’ experience stands for something, we think. We’ve been through several funding regimes, three different inspectorates, multiple changes to apprenticeship structures, goodness knows how many ministers in charge, and worked with dozens of large employers. Food for thought, at least.

Note 1

Large levy paying employers have the choice of becoming an Employer Provider. This is a model that gives employers greater control over their levy funds and is designed for those, in particular, that want to deliver apprenticeships in-house rather than using a training provider. NCAL is happy to discuss this with you and help you achieve Employer Provider status, subject to the process window being available.

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