The government will need to provide more detail about reforms to increase the flexibility of the apprenticeship levy before they can be welcomed openly, according to the BPIF.
It was announced on Monday (1 October) that the levy transfer facility would be increased from 10% to 25% meaning that large levy-paying employers will be able to share more of their annual funds with smaller organisations from April next year.
The treasury said an extra £90m of government funding would be available to enable employers to invest a quarter of their apprenticeship funds on businesses in their supply chain, and a further £5m was set aside for the Institute for Apprenticeships to introduce new standards and update existing ones so that more courses can be offered.
However, BPIF programme development director Ursula Daly – who spearheaded the employer-devised Print Trailblazer apprenticeship scheme – was unsure that the extra £90m would have any benefit for print companies, whose supply chains are not as closely integrated as industries such as car manufacturing.
She said: “Flexibility in the apprenticeship levy is generally to be welcomed. It's not clear however the extent to which the £90m will actually benefit SMEs or larger printers. Firstly, we can't tell whether this is actually additional funding into apprenticeship training, or simply an increase in the amount that a levy paying organisation can allocate to organisations within its supply chain to 25% from the current 10%.
“Secondly, we know that large organisations are struggling to spend their full levy amounts, but there is not the data yet to indicate whether they are using the existing 10% maximum allocation, or the lack of investment is for other reasons, such as this transfer only being for apprenticeship training delivered under the new 'standards' rather than the older 'frameworks'.
“Linked to this, we have a concern that, although £5m has been agreed to introduce new standards, our experience of the Print Trailblazer is that it is a very protracted and overly prescriptive process.”
In the coming weeks, the government will be seeking views on the operation of the levy, which will be taken into consideration for changes to be made in 2020.
Nottingham-based outfit Print4 previously benefitted from the levy in order to fund two apprenticeship schemes which have recently been completed. One has now become a customer services executive, while the other was a trained B2 print operator who has now been trained up to assist on B1 operations.
“Funding is never something we would turn away from,” said director Matt Boam. “We benefitted from the levy, but we would have gone ahead with our schemes with or without the funding.
“I am a big believer in bringing young people into the industry and giving them the opportunity for growth and new skills. With all the print colleges and schools disappearing, I think this is extremely important.
“We will be definitely looking to start up new schemes in 2019 and if there is any more funding available from the government we would definitely take a look.”
Glasgow-based book printer Bell & Bain has a proud history with apprenticeships, with a large number of its 123 staff having originated as apprentices. Although managing director Stephen Docherty remains hands-off in regards to the levy, often choosing to fund things himself or through Print Scotland, his latest ambitions may need further support.
“Funding does not make apprenticeships more attractive to us – it is something we have always done,” he said. “We currently have 11 and I aim to get us to 15 in 2019. We have had visits from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Conservatives MSP Annie Wells who have shown they are keen to help with our next plans.
“But I think the main thing the government needs to do is improve its management of how much money is given out and where it goes to – possibly supporting larger companies to take on apprentices temporarily on behalf of smaller ones.
“For us, I want to get our apprentices on a 24-week engineering course next year to give them more well-rounded knowledge, and I have yet to secure funding for that. I would also eventually like to focus on setting up a 'school' at Bell & Bain as I think it is important that apprentices not only get experience on the machines but have the skills to become reliable journeymen across print disciplines.”