How do we ensure apprentice levies do not extend legacy of Industry Training Boards to digital?

The recent tax changes to reduce the cost of employing apprentices deserved an unequivocal welcome . The reintroduction of training levies and grants, albeit confined to apprenticeships, does not. But the devil will be in the detail.

After the repeating the commitment “to significantly increase the quantity and quality of apprenticeships in England to 3 million starts this Parliament, putting control in the hands of employers” (Para 1.269)  the Budget Report says “This goal will require funding from employers. In recognition of this, the government will introduce a levy on large UK employers to fund the new apprenticeships. This approach will reverse the long term trend of employer underinvestment in training, which has seen the number of employees who attend a training course away from the workplace fall from 141,000 in 1995 to 18,000 in 2014.” Para 1.270)

The UK has a serious problem with under-investment in training but the figures quoted are for “No. of people in employment whose actual hours worked was less than usual hours because of training course (sic) away from the workplace”. Does this mean that the aim of the apprentice levies are to bring about a return to off-site “chalk and talk” and to reverse the rise in supervised and monitored on-line learning at the place of work that has transformed skills acquisition over the past 20 years. Is the aim really to encourage UK employers and training providers to shun the rise of globally recognized technical and professional qualifications and modular degrees, with on-line materials interspersed with webinars, MOOCs and awaydays which do not eat into “usual hours worked”.
One can understand why the Government is seeking means of funding the recommendations of the recent review of the remaining Industry Training Boards but the volume of “off-site” training (or even the time spent using on-line learning material and simulations at the place of work) is not a good proxy for  investment in the changing demand for digital skills. The case for the levy was made in a paper by Professor Alison Wolf which makes some excellent points, including about use of the current government supported apprentice programmes by the retail, hospitality and care industries to cut the cost of retraining older workers. But the main cost of a digital apprenticeship is the time of those providing supervised work experience and mentoring. This is rarely measured, let alone reimbursed in Government supported programmes. Cutting the cost of off-site course modules and accreditation will have little effect. If these are to included then the levy required will not be “modest” and could serve to further encourage the outsourcing and off-shoring of jobs.  Also is the retraining of older workers to be condemned as an abuse or welcomed? 

We need to encourage large private sector employers to train (and not just first entry apprentices) rather than poach from those who do. Nowhere is the problem more serious than with regard to the information security skills crisis, on which I have blogged regularly over the past few years  I summarised the wider issues in my evidence to the recent House of Lords Digital skills report – page 1057 (go to the back a scroll forward!), The problems are not new  but universal broadband that is fit purpose makes it easier to break out of Groundhog Day and use on-line delivery to help slash the cost and time of workplace trainin. Meanwhile while training contacts (where the law was well summarized thirty years ago in Strathclyde Regional Council v. Neal) remain a more effective means of deterring poaching than levies and grants (“job creation programmes for personnel officers”). Those who use contracts to reinforce loyalty tend not, however, to publicise the fact. Also they do not deter the import of supposedly skilled immigrants  or the off-shoring of tasks,  including to meet public sector needs, any more than would a levy and grant regime.

If the aim is to encourage those bidding for public sector business to train UK youngsters
, rather than import supposedly skilled graduates from overseas  then the Chancellor should improve “guidance” on the use of the Social Values Act to cover the public and systematic  weighting of public sector outsourcing procurements in favour of those who take on UK apprentices. There is also a good case for supplementary “apprenticeship levies” on those who recruit off-shore or otherwise export jobs..

On a wider front the Chancellor needs to also address the behavior of Central Government itself – where in-house training appears to have collapsed since the introduction of Civil Service Learning and the termination of all courses that the main contractor cannot provide from its own product line or profitably subcontract. I have blogged on the consequences of this before.  It would be wrong to condemn the analysis that led to the recommendation in para 1.271 as one such consequence, but confining apprentice levies to private sector employers would be a mistake. It is therefore hoped that the Government will not only set apprenticeship targets for public sector bodies (para 3.5 of “Fixing the Foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation” published in parallel with the Summer Budget) but will include then in levy and grant systems, including any levies on those who outsource jobs in order to avoid the need to train their own staff.