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Becky Norman


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How can apprenticeships help organisations build a better future?

Will apprenticeships become an essential component to organisations’ reskilling strategy through economic recovery?

A lot has changed in the learning and development space since the first UK lockdown in March 2020. Almost overnight face-to-face training was adapted to a virtual model and businesses have had to embrace more flexible online skills development solutions to upskill employees during an extremely stressful, uncertain period.

While the transition to online learning has been examined and critiqued extensively across the past year, another area within L&D that has not been given quite as much attention is apprenticeships.

The changing face of apprenticeships

How have attitudes and approaches to this development pathway changed since the pandemic hit? To delve deeper into this unexplored issue, The Open University (OU) conducted research in association with The 5% Club, polling over 600 employers in England in January 2021 about their plans for apprenticeships in the coming months.

The findings, outlined in The OU’s ‘Build The Future Apprenticeship Survey’ report, suggest employers in England have a renewed appetite for apprenticeships and work-based learning this year. Almost three quarters (70%) say apprenticeships will be vital to their recovery from the disruption caused by Covid-19, with 72% planning to take on more apprentices over the next 12 months. This approach is supported by the fact that 66% of employers who embraced apprenticeships during the pandemic say it enabled them to recover more quickly.  

Senior leaders have recognised that reskilling and upskilling the workforce is business critical.

That 70% figure is a substantial increase of 20% from the OU’s Business Barometer report 2020, when 50% of employers said work-based learning and apprenticeships would be vital to their organisation’s recovery from the pandemic. Similarly, the finding that 72% of employers plan to hire apprentices in the next 12 months is an increase from 60% in the Business Barometer report. The research for the Business Barometer survey was carried out in the summer of 2020, so there has been a big increase in positivity in a relatively short space of time, some of which could be attributed to the Covid-19 vaccine rollouts.

The report also shows that there is still some short-term nervousness about the economic and business outlook, with the result that half of the employers surveyed don’t feel they can commit to apprenticeships right now. And a number of them might have to let apprentices go. 

But, that nervousness might be short lived. The report found that 50% of businesses that don’t have any apprentices among their workforce at the moment plan to remedy that and invest in apprenticeships in the near future.

How apprenticeships can develop the future beyond the pandemic

Taking a deeper dive into these findings, The OU ran a webinar on National Apprenticeships Week called ‘How apprenticeships can develop the future beyond the pandemic’, in conjunction with The 5% Club.

Martin Couzins, learning expert and Director of Insights at Insights Media, chaired the webinar, which featured L&D experts from The Open University, Balfour Beatty, Salts Healthcare and Network Rail on the panel.

In this session, Laura Burley, the OU's Apprenticeships Ambassador, noted that: “Even though the immediate situation is quite uncertain, we’re starting to see these green shoots. And interestingly, amongst those who said that apprenticeships will be vital to their organisation’s recovery, that was split equally between SMEs and large businesses.”

For Chris Shirley, Apprenticeship Services Manager at Network Rail, more needs to be done to educate employers and individuals about the breadth and depth of apprenticeships and eligibility. “They really are available for all levels,” he says. Network Rail currently has over 1,500 apprentices, spread across more than 30 apprenticeship programmes and Chris thinks apprenticeships are a fantastic opportunity for employers to increase and diversify their talent pool and gain access to people with different skills and experiences.

Lee Cattermole, Learning and Development Manager at Salts Healthcare, also a member of the West Midlands Apprentice Ambassadors Network, believes that apprenticeships present a huge opportunity for employers and should be part of strategic thinking around the long term development of skills. Lee says The OU report highlights just how important that opportunity is, particularly in a time of such uncertainty. 

Apprenticeships as part of the reskilling strategy 

In the face of so much change, hiring in new talent to meet organisational needs is not a sustainable strategy.

Senior leaders have recognised that reskilling and upskilling the workforce is business critical, and The OU’s latest report suggests that businesses are seeing the potential value in using apprenticeships to support recovery and growth.

Interested in this topic? Watch this video on harnessing the power of apprenticeships.

Author Profile Picture
Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman

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