BusinessPeople In BusinessThe modern apprentice – closing the skills gap

The modern apprentice - closing the skills gap

According to a recent report from the Learning and Skills Council, Skills in England, 23% of all companies suffered skills gaps last year, a 7% increase on 2001. The gap was particularly marked in finance and business services, which weighed in at 17%. Causes are attributed to a number of factors: introduction of new technology, organisational change, lack of training and HR development, and changes in products or services.

The report shows that finance and business employs 16% of the UK workforce, with 50% of staff in administrative and clerical positions. Yet the industry compounds the skills gap by buying in financial specialists rather than training existing staff. The image of accountancy is also still problematic for recruiting people. The sector is ripe for creating apprenticeships.

Since former prime minister John Major transformed technical colleges into universities, an unlikely percentage of the population appears to have a degree – if in esoteric subjects such as illustration or motorcycle engineering.

This unfortunate emphasis on the academic route precludes a large number of people who learn better and more ably on the hoof than by sitting in a classroom and being taught. And by leaving them out, the system marginalises them and gives the impression they are neither bright nor capable – a perception that, in many cases, could not be farther from the truth.

For hundreds of years, apprenticeships were a tried and tested and honourable way of training people. Originally, this was aimed at the less advantaged and gave them an opportunity to learn through working for a skilled or qualified person to learn a trade or profession. Now, apprentices come from all sorts of academic and social backgrounds.

The government stopped supporting apprentices in the 1970s, but they were resurrected in the 1980s by the Training and Enterprise Council (later combined with the Further Education Funding Council to become the LSC) to fulfil a serious need for training for those who did not want to stay in full-time education.

Now they are to come back into their own. At the beginning of March, chancellor Gordon Brown and education and skills secretary Charles Clarke announced plans to expand modern apprenticeships (MAs) and plug the skills shortages in key sectors with the launch of a National Modern Apprenticeship Taskforce. This will be headed by chairman Sir Roy Gardner, chairman of Centrica; with Ian Ferguson, chairman of communications software technology company Data Connection, as deputy chairman.

‘Skills are critical to an individual’s chance of success,’ said Gordon Brown at the launch. ‘To push a teenager into the world of work today without any qualification is to put them at lifetime risk of poverty, failure and wasted potential. That is why modern apprenticeships, which were all but dying out recently, are now flourishing, with 220,000 MAs today gaining skills and qualifications. But more must be done, which is why the new taskforce is so crucial.’

Ian Ferguson is also chairman of the Young People’s Committee of the LSC and joined as a reflection of his commitment to training as an employer.

‘The MA exists to meet the needs of a significant part of the cohort. It is really important,’ he says.

The two levels of MAs, foundation and advanced, have similar structures.

They comprise a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) at Level 2 or 3, an assisted workplace training that educates the apprentice in a relevant set of skills; a technical certificate that contains the underpinning knowledge an apprentice needs to be qualified, for example an accountant will learn to prepare an initial trial balance, and other mandatory or optional elements, as specified by the occupation.

Part of the commitment of the employer is to ensure good reading, writing, number and communication skills. ‘That is a rule of provider training,’ says Ferguson. All this allows young people to leave school at 16, to go into a paid job with a signed contract, and to acquire a level of expertise in the process.

There are 134 frameworks for MAs, and in accountancy subjects they exist at foundation and advanced level for payroll, business administration and accounting. NVQ and technical certification is provided by the Association of Accounting Technicians.

Ferguson says: ‘Trainees may do parts of the apprenticeship framework and come out of that well qualified; or can move on to do a professional qualification. Apprenticeships are both an end and a means to an end.’

Chartered accountancy and business advisory firm Armstrong Jackson is based in Cumbria with 15 offices in the north of England. It employed Chris Carr and Melanie Jackson as apprentices, and last summer they qualified to practice as chartered accountants after completing a six-year modern apprenticeship. Carr and Jackson joined Armstrong Watson after taking A-levels. In 2000, they completed their Association of Accounting Technicians qualification and went on to study as chartered accountants.

They received on the job training, as well as the end qualification, which obviates the need to go to university and attendant student debts.

Carr and Jackson are the first two people to complete the firm’s workforce development programme. Says HR executive of Armstrong Watson John Harrison: ‘We introduced this training initiative because we found ourselves in a situation where large accounting firms in the big cities attracted graduates – many originally from Cumbria – largely to handle audit work. Many of our clients are small to medium-sized businesses with more basic accounting needs, so we need staff capable of handling a range of accountancy work and who do not operate at too conceptual a level.

‘We could not afford to keep recruiting graduates investing in their training only to see them pull out after a while. We needed high-quality generalists, who could handle all types of business so we had to grow our own and create a six-year professional training route for them. At the time it just did not exist.’

The system also has advantages for Armstrong Watson, which is in control of the quality of the training and trainees it develops and monitors the progress of apprentices at every stage. ‘It also enables us to recruit the best people at the start of their careers and engender their loyalty,’ says John Harrison. One of those rare win:win situations.

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