Reflections on National Apprenticeship Week 2020

Tuesday 11 February 2020
What a week! So many people, of all ages, finding their path in life through apprenticeships. Yes, there are a few problems with the system, but this isn’t the time for kneejerk change. Modern, higher-level apprenticeships really can help us level up Brit
group of graduates

How was National Apprenticeship Week (NAW) for you? The 2020 edition was a chance to bring the apprenticeship community together to celebrate the impact of apprenticeships on individuals, employers and the economy. This year’s theme was #LookBeyond. As Rosalind Kunrunmi, NAW’s apprenticeships lead, put it: “'we are encouraging everyone to look beyond the outdated stereotypes surrounding apprenticeships and to celebrate the diversity of opportunity and value that they bring to the country today.”

For me, a highlight was the reception held at the House of Commons for a large number of CMI apprentices. So many sectors were represented. So many different backgrounds, too. In the cohort of 13 currently doing their Management Degree Apprenticeship (MDA) at Queen Mary University of London, nine are from black and ethnic minority ethnic (BAME) communities; without the MDA option, many of them say, they might not have identified a route into a management position.

One of this cohort, Noama Chaudhury, is working with NCVO while studying at Queen Mary. She spoke powerfully about how MDAs are ‘effecting change across the country’. Another, Alexia Lovell, who’s working as a strategy support apprentice at The Prince’s Trust and studying for a degree in Business Management with Social Change, says that doing a degree apprenticeship has given her experiences, and chances to meet people, that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. MDAs are “changing the stereotypes of where apprenticeships can lead people,” she says.

These young people are right. MDAs are offering a whole new pathway into management for people from all sorts of backgrounds and communities. MDAs are popular in precisely the sectors where the UK really needs management and leadership capabilities – such as the NHS and the manufacturing and engineering industries that will power the UK’s infrastructure investment drive. Social enterprises and organisations with a social mission are also turning to MDAs to help them improve their management capability; Queen Mary University of London’s new degree in Business Management with Social change is just one example of meeting this need.

MDAs also allow older workers to re-train and upskill in leadership. This is critical given the perennial issue of “accidental managers” and skills gaps reported by employers. Nearly half (46%) of management apprentices have come from some of the country’s most deprived areas, while 49% are women.

But we must be honest, some recent statistics related to apprenticeships have been disappointing.

The Challenges

First, the latest government figures showed the number of people starting an apprenticeship in England fell to 125,800 between August and October 2019, down 4.7% from 132,000 in the same quarter a year earlier. The number of starts has partly been reduced because businesses have struggled to navigate the complexity of the apprenticeship levy and draw down the funds for the training they want to make use of.

Second, the advantages of the apprenticeship route still need to be communicated more clearly. Despite wide recognition that apprenticeships can be a better option for many than traditional academic courses, a Mumsnet/Department for Education and Skills survey has found that university was still the preferred route for most young people. Alexia Lovell says she only found out about the MDA route via a chance meeting with a local headteacher.

These challenges have prompted some think-tanks and interest groups to call for yet more apprenticeship reform or for funding to be rationed to certain levels, industries or age groups.

Time To Hold Our Nerve

It would be a big mistake to change course now. At this critical stage, the apprenticeship system needs stability rather than yet another round of reform. The economic stakes are simply too high to begin meddling with a system that is coming to maturity and beginning to pay dividends.

Think about the context. Productivity has flatlined in the UK since the financial crisis. We urgently need to address the productivity gap not just in relation to other developed countries, but also between regions in the UK.

A key reason for the UK’s productivity deficit is a lack of leadership and management skills, particularly in SMEs (small and medium-sized companies). What these companies – the bulk of our economy, remember – need are the practices such as target-setting and monitoring, incentivising performance, and continuous improvement of operations that strong, disciplined, professional management brings. Even small improvements in management practices are associated with up to a five per cent increase in a business’s productivity.

Put simply, good leadership brings out the best in people.

But just at the moment in our history when we need high-quality management and leadership skills most, some people are arguing against MDAs.

The Power Of Professional Development

Anyone who’s ever invested in their own development will know the benefits it can bring. The CMI community is built on the belief that investing in leadership skills makes a difference, personally and in what you bring to your organisation.

If we’re serious about levelling up, then the UK economy needs to invest in more and higher quality leadership, in management and training.

You don’t become an excellent manager or leader by accident; there are clear pathways to excellence. We have a host of evidence that becoming a ‘Chartered Manager’ (the highest level of management qualification) positively benefits individuals, business revenue and the UK economy – and that all helps to boost productivity.

Management Degree Apprenticeships (MDAs) are the start-point for attaining that standard of excellence. They really can trigger a transformation in management and leadership standards across the whole of the UK.

The apprenticeship community needs to hold its nerve and look beyond the short term. Apprentices of all levels will play a central role in tackling the UK’s productivity gap, driving up standards of management and leadership, and helping us meet the opportunities and challenges that will emerge post-Brexit. This is no time for carping and negativity; it’s time to look optimistically at what well-trained managers and leaders, from all backgrounds, can deliver for Britain.

Help us stand up for apprenticeships and support the next generation of managers and leaders.