Employers' attitudes to training - critical to delivering a world-class apprenticeship system

5 February 2021 Michelle Rea

Today (Friday 5 February) Gatsby has published 'On- and Off-The-Job Training in Apprenticeships in England' which draws together research by both Michaela Brockmann & Ian Laurie at the University of Southampton and Rob Smith & Vanessa Cui at Birmingham City University who separately conclude that the attitude and engagement of employers towards both on- and off-the-job training is one of the most critical factors in whether an apprenticeship is of high-quality.

It goes without saying that the quality of an apprenticeship is determined by the quality of education and training that the apprentice receives, but discussion tends to focus on the regulatory and funding environment for apprenticeships rather than the quality of training provided. To better understand more about the quality of training that apprentices receive in this country, Gatsby commissioned two research projects:

  • On-the-job training in apprenticeship in England by Michaela Brockmann and Ian Laurie at the University of Southampton
  • The factors affecting the quality of the ‘off-the-job’ element of apprenticeships in the West Midlands region by Rob Smith and Vanessa Cui at Birmingham City University

The value of a high-quality apprenticeship is being able to combine and contextualise the learning that takes place away from the workplace with the learning that happens in the workplace – this brings real benefits to both the employer and apprentice. To make this happen, both the employer and the apprentice must regard 100% of the apprentice’s time (80% on-the-job 20% off-the-job) as an apprenticeship, with the employer being truly engaged with the education and training they offer on-the-job and finding benefit and relevance to the 20% of the time that the apprentice is off-the-job.

The recent Skills for Jobs White Paper makes sensible recommendations about how to improve the quality of the 20% off-the-job training but the remaining 80% of the training offered on-the-job is ripe for further improvement and it is this critical element of an apprentice’s training which On- and Off-The-Job Training in Apprenticeships in England asserts needs considerable support.

There are large numbers of apprentices in England receiving very high-quality education and training as described above with the involvement of fully-invested employers. However, the research identifies two groups of employers that give cause for concern – the minimally invested and the partially engaged.

In the worst cases, the minimally invested employer provides on-the-job training that goes little further than basic induction, and sees the off-the-job training as an unwanted burden. Offering an apprenticeship in the first place may simply not be appropriate for these employers - it’s important to note that even in the highest quality apprenticeship systems across the world it is still a minority of employers who offer apprenticeships. However, at present, in this country there are few publicly-funded alternatives to apprenticeships for employers who are looking to train their workforce which means that some minimally invested employers use apprenticeships as a low-cost/low-skills solution for recruiting and training staff. Trying to fit all forms of training into the apprenticeship model runs a serious risk of damaging the integrity and reputation of apprenticeships.

The partially engaged employers aim to be supportive of their apprentices but do not appreciate the full training potential of an apprenticeship, or how critical their role in training is in ensuring that the apprenticeship is high-quality. Typical experiences include not engaging with what apprentices learn off-the-job, or regarding the ‘apprenticeship’ element as what happens off-the-job rather than considering how to make on-the-job training an authentic part of the apprenticeship. There is huge potential for government and others to capitalise on the support this group of employers would like to offer their apprentices but are unsure how best to proceed. Focused engagement with them could be key to unlocking the truly world-class apprenticeship system called for the in the FE White Paper.

Several recommendations about how to support these employers are laid out in this report including:

  • Employers, off-the-job training providers and apprentices need to work in partnership to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of each are clear and understood by all parties. A shared understanding of what apprenticeship means is essential.
  • The employer and the off-the-job training provider should develop a training plan that links the on- and off-the-job training and helps the apprentice understand their progression towards occupational competence.
  • Employers offering an apprenticeship for the first time should be given more support. This might include financial incentives directed through local funding via the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) or Combined Authority or partnering with other employers who have successful apprenticeship schemes.
  • Employers should work together to explore how they can improve the quality of training. This could include setting up inter-company training centres that could give apprentices the opportunity to work on equipment or processes which are not available with their current employer; coordinating inter-company visits for apprentices; networking for apprentices; or providing mentors for apprentices.
  • A kitemark for good apprenticeship employers should be developed based on meeting certain criteria associated with the quality of on-the-job training and overall apprenticeship experience.

You can download the report here.

Gatsby would be keen to work with others to help ensure that these recommendations are enacted. If you would like to share ideas or suggestions, contact Programme Director, Daniel Sandford Smith: