Printers sceptical of trailblazer apprenticeship initiative

By Hannah Jordan, Monday 25 November 2013

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The latest cog in the government’s apprenticeship reform wheel has been set in motion over the past few weeks in the form of eight pilot trailblazer groups with a remit to develop new ‘employer-led’ national standards.


All apprenticeships will have to last a minimum of 12 months

The groups, selected for being at the forefront of economic benefit to UK industry, represent the aerospace, automotive, energy, digital, electro-technical, financial, food and drink and life and industrial sciences sectors, with each comprising up to 10 businesses. 

Neither printers nor print manufacturers are among these ‘early adopters’, although papermaking giant UPM is involved (see p5). However the government is inviting applications from consortia representing other industries that want to set up their own trailblazer groups, so the opportunity is there.

But one industry source calls the news standards “nothing but unnecessary tinkering as a veiled way of reducing government costs” and says the print industry is unlikely to put itself forward as a trailblazer “because we are simply not good enough at promoting ourselves”. 

That may or may not be so, but whether the industry likes it or not businesses, trade bodies and learning providers are going to have to work together in some form to reshape existing print apprenticeships so that they tick all the boxes by the government’s deadline for the new standards of 2017/18. 

The new ‘employer-led’ approach aims to make apprenticeships specifically relevant to their sectors by getting the employers themselves to design them. The new standards, which will replace all current frameworks, will introduce a series of fundamental changes such as a grading system of pass, merit or distinction, and independent assessment to be focused at the end of the programme rather than throughout. 

Additionally, all apprenticeships will have to last a minimum of 12 months and the level of English and Maths needed to achieve a pass will be gradually raised. 

While this employer-led approach has been broadly welcomed, the finer details have been criticised by some in print for being unhelpful.  

“For one thing, exams aren’t right for everyone. Yes, they should be there, but to put the whole emphasis on final assessment is just not right for our industry,” says BPIF chief executive Kathy Woodward.

She concedes though that the industry, like many others will simply have to realign its existing apprenticeships to fit the new standards. 

SME skills

One of the main focuses of the trailblazer scheme, in developing the new standards, is that they must meet the skills requirements of small businesses and be simple for them to access. As such, the groups, which are mostly formed of giants including the likes of John Lewis, BT, Toyota, HSBC and BAE Systems, are expected to form networks of SMEs in order to inform the standards on which they are working.

Woodward is sceptical about how this will work in practice – whether the initiative would work for print. “The trailblazers are fine for the John Lewises or BTs of this world, but which single employer would you nominate from the print industry that should dictate the skillset for everyone else in the industry?” 

Representation from “many voices”, she says, is a more effective fit for the industry. 

One of Woodward’s greatest concerns is not, however, the skill-setting, but rather about managing the funding for businesses. An integral part of the government’s overhaul of the system is indeed around funding and crucially aims to push responsibility onto the employer.

The current funding model, which is fixed by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), will cease as each new trailblazer standard is agreed and it will be the responsibility of employers to negotiate with training providers the price and content of their training. 

Employers will also be expected to raise their level of investment in training and government will pay a contribution up to a maximum amount per learner. One idea the government is considering, as a way of boosting employer commitment, is payment upon successful results. 

Further details on just what the government’s new funding strategy will entail will be revealed in the coming weeks, including details of payment delivery, which could determine whether smaller employers will want to participate.

Three models under consideration are payment direct to a business’s account, payment through PAYE and provider payment, where government funding continues to come through training providers, but can only be drawn once the employer contribution has been received. 

Woodward says details such as these are needed now to help the BPIF, its partners and members “reshape” the existing standards, potentially through a new trailblazer group, to fit with “the direction of travel and come up with something that meets industry aspirations as well as those of the funders”. 

“If they have to claim back at the end of a successful apprenticeship, then only the rich companies will get to train and it won’t help small businesses, such as those in the print industry, at all,” she says.

“We’re sticking closely to the SFA and the National Apprenticeship Service and keeping abreast of developments with the trailblazers to see how it’s working so we can position ourselves to get the best result for our members,” she adds.

“The key is not so much the skill-setting, it’s how you manage funding after the skill setting. It could put providers out of business and if print is going to move into augmented reality, for example, and take our position in digital engineering, then we need help to fund those kinds of training initiatives within the industry,” Woodward says.


More print firms need to get involved if we’re to progress

jonathan-brayJonathan Bray, owner, Learn2Print

The standards set by these trailblazers must suit both large and small businesses. It is very easy to create something that lets the smaller companies fall by the wayside.

Print standards have just been revisited and that had to include input and approval from industry, but print is often left on the back burner when it comes to changes in the curriculum, probably due to poor uptake. It is based on numbers at the end of the day. If we have 10,000 learners in media and 200 in print, obviously organisers are going to deal with media first. But that’s not to say that the trailblazer, if pushed by industry, couldn’t go forward. 

The problem is that our sector skills council, Proskills, has battled for years to get the industry to look forward and invest in apprenticeships for the future. But the reality is, it’s the same handful of familiar faces that express opinions and make the effort to show up when it comes to updating curriculums and giving new programme input. 

The majority of the time, the industry has failed to encourage continued education in print and the outcome is that we are left with colleges and training providers ceasing to promote print. 

If print continues to fail to address this and does not invest in apprenticeships it will come to an end. Only two years ago, City & Guilds had a meeting with me to consider pulling out of print as an awarding body. After much encouragement, we convinced them to stay with us and let us redevelop the qualifications. The fear of one of the major awarding bodies pulling the plug will have a massive impact and put a stop to funded qualifications.

I am all for change; however, the employers in the printing industry need to actively get involved and not just talk about it to make it happen - that includes manufacturers. 

The reality is, we welcome change with open arms along with new initiatives, but let us not go round in circles and simply talk about it, get involved. 


What needs to be done to improve print apprenticeships?

nicole-spencerNicole Spencer, operations manager, RMC Digital

“We are lucky in Hull, there are quite a few signmakers and one of the local colleges runs a relevant apprenticeship course. But other sectors of print struggle and I think the government could do more to make courses more focused on the practical needs of employers. Companies could also do more to promote print to apprentices and school children. We run poster competitions with local retailers where children have their work printed for shop windows and learn about the printing. Print isn’t promoted in schools as a career option.”

matt-kentMatt Kent, managing director, Print4Printers

“Taking on apprentices is the way we grow the team, but when I started looking into how to go about recruiting apprentices, it was really hard to get information about how to do it. I think there’s a problem getting information out to businesses, which is a shame - I really believe if people knew how easy it is to do there would be much more uptake. Maybe it’s the job of training providers such as Proskills and Learn2Print to help the information flow. Printers can also go into schools to flag up and promote the trade.”

nick-greenNick Green, chief executive,

“We have to find a way to get more people more excited about some of the incredible businesses out there, especially those that combine the internet with print. It is not a boring business and there is an emerging digital facet that young people would love to get involved in. We need to do a much better job of raising our industry profile, so that we don’t lose out on things like this. Print has a natural marriage with traineeships and it’s something we at fundamentally believe in and feel a responsibility to support fully.”

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