Skills we must all acquire

It seems to be a `no-brainer', as Sir Alan Sugar might say, to hire apprentices as a way of investing in a company's future - so why aren't more North-East companies doing just that?

It seems to be a `no-brainer', as Sir Alan Sugar might say, to hire apprentices as a way of investing in a company's future - so why aren't more North-East companies doing just that? In the last of a three-part series, Alan Hall, director at EEF Northern, discusses the barriers facing employers when hiring an apprentice.

Whose fault is it that the country fails to back the modern apprenticeships scheme - the Government or business itself?

Arguably, blame could be attached to both parties. The scheme is not promoted but companies are not contributing either. Everyone complains about the situation but they would rather go out and poach apprentices from elsewhere than do the training themselves.

In a recently-produced, challenging report entitled, Skills for Productivity - Can the UK Deliver?, EEF surveyed over 500 manufacturing companies.

The overall and hardly surprising conclusion was that if we invest in training to develop our workforce, we will most certainly improve productivity levels. However, the survey also showed that technical and practical skills are vitally important and that the UK compares poorly with competitor countries in its proportion of people with these skills.

The report concludes that we need a greater emphasis on vocational education, with 43% of manufacturing companies identifying this as a top priority for the UK Government. A high proportion of companies felt that funding for apprenticeships would have a positive impact on training.

In 2005/06, we saw an increase in funding for apprenticeships but we also saw that funding for apprentices aged 19 and over would be reduced by 6%. The funding of apprentices at these `older' ages is some 56% of the rate of 16 to 18-year-olds.

Sadly, this has already led to fewer 19 to 24-year- olds engaging with this type of learning.

Efforts to raise staying-on rates at school together with the creation of specialised diplomas for the 14 to 19-year-olds make it likely that more young people would be considering entering an apprenticeship over, rather than below, the age of 18.

So, funding cuts are likely to undermine recruitment of a key target for apprenticeships. EEF will lobby for the Government to have a re-think.

Briefly the report went on to highlight other barriers. These included:

* Lack of information and poor guidance for employers;

* Employers finding it difficult to navigate and to engage with the system as it stands. The complexity of the funding streams and post-16 training delivery are confusing;

* Little coordination between employers, training providers and sector skills councils;

* The relatively high cost of an engineering apprenticeship (£46,150) compared to that of a retail apprenticeship (£24,000);.

* Smaller firms keen to see either some form of training levy or other financial incentive such as tax credits for training.

Our region is doing better than most. Our LSC is committed to bringing about change and creating a thriving economy. Working with employers, colleges and training providers, the LSC aims to develop a better mix of skills to fill jobs that require high level expertise, as well as technical abilities.

The organisation is making real progress in its response to businesses' concerns about skills shortages. But there is still work to be done and one big challenge facing businesses and organisations is the need to improve skills to boost productivity.

One good example of how we can break down these barriers is `Train to Gain.' It was launched in April and aims to help employers get the training they need to stay ahead in the competitive business environment by improving employees' skills.

This builds on the North-East's successful Employer Training Pilot (ETP), which helped thousands of individuals and employers in the region with their skills needs. The LSC is also responsible for a network of CoVEs (Centres of Vocational Excellence) across the region. These have fundamentally changed the way colleges and training providers interact with and deliver to businesses.

So there are some encouraging signs of improvement and EEF will play its full part in this whole skills arena.

Alan Hall is director at EEF Northern which has more than 400 member companies in the North.

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