The association welcomed the “ambitious plans” announced by Chancellor Rushi Sunak in his Summer Statement that included generous subsidies for employers willing to take on apprentices, but said delivering the required quality of training presented a series of challenges as a result of the crisis.
BESA praised the government’s new £2bn worth of measures aimed at improving employment prospects for the younger generation. These include £2,000 for every employer who takes on an apprentice and £1,000 for any willing to take on new trainees. Firms will also receive £1,500 if they take on an apprentice aged over 25.
Before the Chancellor’s announcement, shadow business minister Lucy Powell told a webinar hosted by the association that a whole generation of young people was in danger of being adversely affected by the coronavirus crisis and called for greater support to encourage employers to take on apprentices.
“There has been a big drop in numbers taken on [during the pandemic],” she said. “If we are really going to build our way out of this crisis…that will need to be underpinned by skills.”
Ms Powell said there had been serious “teething problems” with the Apprenticeship Levy. “We will have to make it a lot easier for businesses to take on apprentices. We will need to provide more funding and more flexibility.”
BESA chief executive David Frise added that 33% of member companies had told the association they would not be able to spend their allocation of funds from the Apprenticeship Levy before December, which meant it would be lost.
“That is a criminal loss, but it is simply because they are not able to spend it – not because they don’t want to,” he explained.
Mr Frise added that 50% of apprentices in the sector were still furloughed, which “is a big concern” as many may not return to work at all.
One way of making it easier to deliver technical apprenticeship courses, such as those in building engineering, was to develop a “more blended model”, he said. This would involve a mixture of remote working using digital delivery systems alongside the traditional classroom and on site experience. This will be a feature of the new BESA Academy, which launches next month and will be providing a wide range of online courses.
“A lot of colleges are reluctant to provide engineering apprenticeships because they are more expensive and complex than other types of training,” he said. “Delivering more of the course content remotely will make it more attractive to them and easier to access for prospective students.”
However, BESA said it would be essential to make sure all apprentices had access to adequate equipment and IT support.
“The lockdown period was an excellent testing ground for the new remote teaching model,” said director of BESA Training Helen Yeulet. “In theory, it should have been the perfect time for apprentices to catch up on course work and planning, but in practice it was not quite so easy.”
She said a survey carried out by the association had revealed worrying levels of “IT poverty”, which could contribute to growing regional inequality. Some apprentices were in danger of falling behind their peers during the lockdown and of missing out on valuable exercises and materials because of limited access to the right kind of computer hardware and IT support. The variable quality of rural broadband was also highlighted.
The survey found considerable differences between regions: Almost 20% of apprentices in Wales and 10% in Scotland did not have the use of their own laptop or iPad compared with a much smaller proportion in England.
Almost half of all Scottish apprentices and more than a third of their Welsh counterparts also had to share a laptop with other household members, while this was only true of around 20% of those based in England. Access to printing facilities was similarly restricted.
BESA said it was working with its members and industry partners to address the IT poverty issue and ensure all apprentices have access to the software and hardware they need to support remote learning.