As National Apprenticeship Week draws to a close, BPIF programme director Ursula Daly pointed to the latest report from the Department for Education (DfE) showing the total number of apprenticeship starts for December 2018 was 15,300 – down 9% on 2017 and 36% on 2016.
Broken down, the group suffering most was the ‘intermediate’ level – Level 2 and 3 apprenticeships that are tailored for young people with few or no qualifications as an entry-point into the work place – whose uptake had fallen 23% to 5,800 compared to 2017.
Comparatively, the ‘higher’ portion – Levels 6 and 7 apprenticeships which tend to result in a university degree-level qualification for participants – had risen in uptake since 2017 by 39% to 2,500.
“When you look behind the numbers it is even more troubling than the initial 9% decline suggests,” said Daly. “Level 2 apprenticeships are all about social mobility, where someone who hasn’t got many qualifications can gain their entry into the workplace and absolutely thrive. Those numbers are very worrying.
“It’s hard to know everything that is contributing to this. Some say it is the increased administration required by employers after the levy was introduced and the rules were changed last year, but there has also been a government focus on higher programmes.
“Our work on the Level 3 Trailblazer scheme is almost complete now and we are in the process of preparing our third application for a similar scheme at Level 2 that will be submitted to the Institute for Apprenticeships, so hopefully this will change things.”
Roadblocks to apprenticeships come in many guises across the print sector, with businesses put off by the prescriptive and convoluted nature of schemes, and the funding and support available.
Leeds-based labels and packaging printer OPM Group runs its own internal training academy because the industry-approved apprenticeship schemes do not cover aspects of the process that apply to the firm’s specialities.
Managing director Chris Ellison said: “Our tech in labels and packaging is a bit left-field of the standard four-colour print process covered in the apprenticeship curriculum. Our own academy is not formally recognised but it is a great pathway for our employees.
“I think print apprenticeship training tends to focus on things that are not necessarily relevant and if the scope was expanded it would be much better for the employees because they would have the ability to move around the sector a bit more.
“If it were overhauled to be up-to-date and embrace new technologies, we would welcome it.”
For Cambridge-based commercial operation Langham Press, it is simply a lack of clarity on how to access funding and guidance that stops the firm taking up apprenticeships.
“I am completely confused by the whole thing,” said managing director David Arnold. “I have looked at apprenticeships in the past, but we have never done it. Our main block is that it seems difficult to get the information we need.
“The whole process needs to be simplified and made less expensive, because it is always at the back of my mind that the industry needs apprentices just like I was 35 years ago.”
But printers do also thrive with the help of a robust apprenticeship cohort, as is the case with Security Print Solutions (SPS) in Consett, County Durham, where operations director Paul Craig oversees a number of apprentices, including his recently-qualified daughter Amy who was nominated for Trainee of the Year at the 2018 PrintWeek Awards.
“We currently have two apprentices, as well as three that have recently qualified, and the plan is definitely to take a couple more on” he said. “I was the very first apprentice at SPS back in 1985 when I did Level 2 and 3 over three years from the age of 16.
“From there I have worked my way up to a role of responsibility and it is important that young people can see that – the progress you can make and the money you can earn.
“As our wage bill comes under £3m, we benefit from the apprenticeship levy. It has certainly helped with the frequency at which we can take on new starters. It is very cost effective as a way to train a workforce and a great way for young people to get qualifications.
“We are very proud of our apprentices.”