Let’s get technical

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2018

Kathryn Allen looks at how the apprenticeship levy is shaping UK investment in technical education.

In November 2017, the UK Government claimed that 2018 would be the year of engineering, launching a national campaign to close the engineering skills gap, and the Autumn Budget announced R&D spending would increase from 1.7% to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.  

Last year also saw the implementation of the apprenticeship levy, encouraging the uptake of on-the-job, technical training. The levy came into force on 6 April, meaning companies with an annual pay bill over £3m have to pay 0.5% of this towards a fund used for training apprentices. 

The Department for Education predicts that 1.3% of all UK employers – around 19,000 – will pay the levy in 2017–18, generating £2.7bln in funds. Of this, 2,710 employers in the manufacturing sector are expected to pay £180m. In addition to this, construction companies pay the Construction Industry Training Board Levy and companies in engineering construction pay the Engineering Construction Training Board Levy. These fund industry training across the industry.   

The government announced in October 2016 that the levy would double the investment in apprenticeships by 2020, compared to 2010 levels. But how effective is the levy proving? Between 17 July and 1 August 2017, the British Chambers of Commerce, in partnership with Middlesex University London, surveyed more than 1,400 business people from across the UK to find out how the levy is affecting them. Results show that 23% of paying businesses questioned have no understanding of it or don’t know how they would respond to it, and only 36% expect to recover the full amount spent by their company. For a training provider’s insight on the levy, see page 30.

What are the benefits?

Despite the confusion, and the initial mixed reaction from the engineering industry (see Materials World, October 2015, page 12), the levy does have its benefits. A report carried out by government campaign Business is Great Britain, English Apprenticeships: Our 2020 Vision: executive summary, states that apprentices achieved higher levels of qualifications, increased productivity and improved employment prospects, with 83% of apprentices surveyed confirming this. Benefits are also brought to employers, with 70% of those surveyed saying apprenticeships improved product quality and service.

Stephen Crawley, Director of Skills at Skills Training UK, told Materials World, ‘The opportunity is there to gain a real return on investment from the levy tax employers are paying and to be fully ready for the impact of Brexit.’ While acknowledging that change can be challenging for employers, Crawley added, ‘The plus side is that the reforms have given employers more of an opportunity to be involved with apprenticeship training design and delivery, to make sure the training is bespoke to their needs. It can be tailored and targeted. The new Apprenticeship Standards have been led by employers who understand what qualities and standards of delivery they need from employees at each occupational level.’

Apprenticeship degrees

As Crawley points out, apprenticeships are not just for school-leavers, but can be undertaken at each professional level. With the new system, the up-skilling of existing employees becomes an option. UK universities, including Cranfield and Manchester Metropolitan, are currently developing postgraduate courses – ranging from technical specialisation to management training – funded by the apprenticeship levy. 

Professor Paul Baines, Director of the Executive MBA Programme at Cranfield University, explained that, while the funding band for the Senior Leaders Masters Apprenticeship has yet to be set by the government – initially due in November 2017 but postponed to January 2018 – Cranfield has gone ahead with launching its Executive MBA Programme in anticipation of what the fee will be. Asked about the popularity for the course, Baines said, ‘We’ve got 67 people on the programme and of that 61 are apprenticeship levy students. The other six are self-funded. This gives an indication of the likely high demand for the programme.’ As the funding band has yet to be set, these students are signed up as associate students in the interim and their employers will be charged at the top end of the funding band once set – the course was advertised at £27,000. 

While this course is not technical, Baines points out, ‘As far as the message to engineering companies might go, it makes sense for them to use the apprenticeship levy to up-skill employees. What an MBA gives engineers – because their knowledge is often technical, it can be difficult for them to transition to a management role – is a more general understanding of business. It’s hugely relevant for engineers.’ 

Considering further education, Baines added, ‘It’s fundamental to undertake training at all levels partly because [in the UK] we’re reducing immigration substantially and we need to replace the people that would otherwise have come from abroad. I think this is at least partly why the government has introduced the apprenticeship levy. We need to build skills at all levels inside an organisation, not just at the shop floor level.’

Getting technical

In response to significant employer demand, Manchester Metropolitan University is also launching a new MBA Degree Apprenticeship programme, aligned to the Senior Leader apprenticeship standard. The university expects to launch the programme early this year, once final approval has been received from the government. Liz Gorb, Director of Apprenticeships, explained how the funding for the new programme will work – for smaller businesses with a payroll below £3m and larger businesses with payrolls above the threshold. She explained, ‘There are two very different systems depending on whether students are coming from a levy-paying organisation or not. For the former, all of the payment is handled through a new digital service, set up by the government, and payments are deducted automatically through this service monthly if funds are available. Smaller, non-levy-paying employers, are eligible for 90% funding from the government and will only need to pay 10% any fees themselves. This dramatically reduces the cost of completing executive education.’ 

The university is also contributing to the development of 13 other degree apprenticeship standards, including potential programmes in materials science and engineering. Gorb explained the demand for these technical courses. ‘We are currently working with employers where they have identified current standards will not be able to deliver the skills they need at their organisations. For example, many of the apprenticeship standards are in specialist areas – such as in aerospace or nuclear sectors. We are hearing from employers that they would like to see degree apprenticeships being developed that have a broader skills base, enabling them to build a more flexible workforce who can adapt to their business needs.’

However, according to Gorb, despite what the industry is saying, so far the government has been resistant to this approach, preferring to keep apprenticeships aligned to specific job roles. This is broadly representative of the feedback they have received, for the Materials Science Degree Apprenticeship, which the university is working on with a group of employers, Staffordshire University, UK, and the Applied Materials Research, Innovation and Commercialisation Company, UK. ‘It is challenging to keep employers engaged in a process that presents so many hurdles and is sometimes very slow. We are hopeful we can make progress and create an apprenticeship that works for a range of employers,’ said Gorb.

An equal footing

Despite this investment, prejudices still exist, with some employers not valuing technical training as highly as academic – or university – education. However, this may be changing. Crawley is a firm believer that the levy is putting technical education on an equal footing with university degrees.

Skills Training UK is working with the British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing (BINDT) to design an engineering degree. Crawley explains, ‘The new Level 6 Non-Destructive Testing (NDT) Engineer Apprenticeship means, on completion of the apprenticeship, the NDT engineer will hold a degree – BSc Non-Destructive Testing or BEng Non-Destructive Testing. The degree will be accredited or approved by BINDT. The knowledge and skills apprentices will develop include techniques, such as corrosion analysis, thermographic testing, vibration analysis and inspection techniques.’ 

As previously mentioned, apprenticeships can be combined with a degree. However, some apprentices chose to undertake both separately. BAE Systems Apprentice of the Year, Blossom Hill, is currently working as a Welfare Officer at the Aircraft Maintenance Academy at Humberside Airport, UK, but initially joined the company as an apprentice in 2014, undertaking placements in Operations and Project Control. Referring to the technical versus academic debate, Hill told Materials World, ‘If anything, I have felt at an advantage among my friends who have gone to university and there are a few reasons for this. Aged 18, I was earning a very good wage while learning the job hands on and working towards qualifications as part of my apprenticeship framework. I also did not have the worry of the large amount of debt that I would’ve had once completing a degree and trying to get a job at the end of it.’ Hill is now undertaking a company-sponsored, part-time degree alongside her job. 

Top tips 

Hill offered some tips to those considering undertaking an apprenticeship. ‘Make sure it is right for you and do as much research as possible. If you know you want your career to go down a certain route, is an apprenticeship something that can help you get to where you need to be? The standards of apprenticeships are improving and there are more higher apprenticeships [level 4 qualifications or above] being offered, so it is really worth exploring as it may help you get your career moving in the right direction.’ She also says people should not limit themselves to a certain industry, but consider the variety of roles required in all sectors.

‘Once on your apprenticeship, my top tips for success are be yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help and take every opportunity available,’ continued Hill. ‘If you work in a company like BAE Systems, a high percentage of people who work here started their careers as an apprentice so will most likely have gone through what you have and will be able to share similar experiences to help you. At the end of the day, it is your apprenticeship, so what you put in is what you will get out of it.’

An issue cited with apprenticeships is managing time between the job and training. Government policy mandates that apprentices be excused from employment for 20% of their working time to complete the apprenticeship. Gorb said, ‘Although that seems quite a large figure, when you look at how that time can be used, including attendance at university, online study, on-the-job activities such as mentoring or job shadowing, completing work-based projects and research, employers are surprised at how quickly these activities add up and enable them to reach this target.’

The effectiveness of the levy remains to be seen, as funding bands are set and courses approved. The UK Government has also said that from April 2018, levy-paying companies will be able to transfer, initially, up to 10% of annual funds to other companies or training agencies – hopefully making apprenticeships even more accessible.

To read Apprenticeships Policy in England: 2017, Briefing Paper CBP 03052, visit bit.ly/2wRWrB9

To read a summary of the British Chambers of Commerce Workforce Survey, visit bit.ly/2yglS2x