When the levy breaks

Apprenticeships returned to the top of the agenda last month following announced changes to the Apprenticeship Levy. Is it working for you?

Published:  27 November, 2018

As the song goes, “When the levy breaks, I’ll have no place to stand.” Well, it doesn’t go exactly like that if you are a spelling pedant, but has the Apprenticeship Levy worked for you? Has it helped your business find suitable young people during its existence. Equally, when it was announced that it was going to be reformed, did you feel the floodwaters rising?
    
Maybe the government did feel their feet getting wet recently. At the Conservative Party conference at the end of September, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced a number of measures to reform the Apprenticeship Levy, and a review into the scheme, which was launched in April 2017. This followed criticism from business regarding the difficulty of dealing with the system and falling numbers of young people seeking the career option.

Strategy
The Apprenticeship Levy was launched with great fanfare as part of the government’s industrial strategy, but it has been slogging through the mire since then. According to the Daily Telegraph, in the first three months after the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, there was a 60% drop in the number of people starting apprenticeships. This fall was subsequently partly made up, but the scheme has still not been providing the service  it was intended to give.
    
The Open University published a report into the Levy in April 2018. It found that of the £1.39bn paid into the system by English businesses, only £108m has been taken. This would seem to suggest that businesses  have been having trouble working with  the system.
    
On the other hand, the study also found that 84%of business leaders in England that were asked the Apprenticeship Levy in principle and, despite some negative preconceptions at the start, 54% felt more positive about the scheme in 2018 compared compared with 2017. That said, the study also found that 40% of business leaders still saw the Levy as little more than a tax, and 17% did not believe it would recoup its costs.
    
Considering the reach of the Apprenticeship Levy, that could be a problem. It is paid to HM Revenue & Customs by all UK employers with an annual wage bill of over £3million via the PAYE process. This enables organisations in England to take funding from the National Apprenticeship Service to spend on apprenticeship training. According to the Open University, there are still a number of barriers to get over for the scheme, including managing apprenticeship programmes, associated costs and apprenticeship content.
    
Not all businesses have to pay into the Levy, but according to the study, those that do have to pay in are more supportive of the scheme than those that do not. 92% of those in charge at businesses where they do pay in agree with the Levy in principle, but 43% of these want changes. Support for the scheme in businesses not covered is lower, with just  72% in favour, and 34% saying it would offer no benefits.
    
While this is not exactly a hostile environment, it’s not entirely welcoming either. Did someone say ‘quagmire?’

Flexibility
It is in this context that Philip Hammond announced changes that will aim to open up access, and make the scheme work for businesses and employers. This would include more flexibility and expand apprenticeship courses in science and other STEM subjects. Specifically, the proposals would  allow large employers to transfer up to 25% of their Apprenticeship Levy funds to businesses in their supply chain from April 2019.
    
In his speech at the conference, Philip Hammond said: “We have heard the concerns about how the Apprenticeship Levy is working, so today we’ve set out a series of measures to allow firms more flexibility in how the Levy is spent. But we know that we may need to do more to ensure that the levy supports the development of the skilled workforce our economy needs. So, in addition to these new flexibilities, we will engage with business on our plans for the long term operation of the Levy.”

Widening
It seems like a positive step. But what are the possible implications for the automotive sector?
    
Responding to the speech, Steve Nash, Chief Executive at the IMI, said: "Philip Hammond has set out the Conservative party’s wish to be considered the ‘party for business’. And the widening of access to the Apprenticeship Levy, to those businesses in the corporate supply chain, is excellent news.  For some time, at the IMI, we have been hearing from businesses that they believed the scope of the Levy was too limited."
    
“But we urge caution when it comes to reviewing the apprenticeship model in 2020, which was also proposed by Philip Hammond. Of course, it’s important to listen to business and address any barriers to apprenticeship take-up. But by 2020 the new reforms will be fully bedded in – wholesale change would therefore be a disaster. The last thing businesses need is to have to start all over again.
    
“Already recruiting 12,500 apprentices each year, the motor industry is wholeheartedly committed to futureproofing apprenticeships and has already engaged as positively as it can with the reforms introduced last year. Indeed, we believe that the motor industry is one of the most engaged sectors when it comes to adopting and promoting the new apprenticeship model.
    
“The IMI therefore urges government to stick with the new model already introduced and to focus its efforts on ensuring businesses fully understand how they can maximise the levy for the benefit of their organisation.” Steve added: “The skills gap in the motor retail sector is already critical. Young blood is, therefore, vital as the rapid development of new technology around electric, autonomous and connected vehicles changes the face of motoring, opening up a world of exciting new career opportunities.”

Summing up
Considering the sheer scale of the automotive aftermarket and the large number of smaller businesses within it, it’s fair to say for a great many of our readers, the Apprenticeship Levy is something that happens to someone else. Widening access to funding for apprenticeships though is vital, so the government has the right idea. It would be great if more garages were accessing the funding. Getting access to the right kind of young talent is a topic we often come back to. We look at it from the school leaver perspective, the employer perspective, the educational establishment perspective, and here we are looking at it from a legislative and political perspective.
    
We end up coming back to the fact that there are just not enough people coming our way, so then we end up asking ourselves again, “are we paying enough? Do the teachers understand what we do?” There is the argument that apprenticeships have not been run right for decades, but of course on an individual basis there are thousands of garages out there providing a solid grounding in the sector for bright and eager young people. It’s a complex picture, but more support would definitely help.



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