Demystifying the apprenticeship levy

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Recommendations for what businesses and the government can do to help employers realise the levy’s potential

Recent figures about the widespread lack of understanding of the apprenticeship levy made for sobering reading. Research by Evolve Learning Group and the West London College revealed that just under a third (32%) of employers who qualify for the levy are taking it as a valuable opportunity to train new and existing staff.

The reasons such a startlingly large proportion of the levy lies untapped included the admission that only 37% of employers have a full understanding of how it could help their business. The figures also revealed an overwhelming consensus among employers (78%) that more needs to be done to increase their understanding of the levy’s value, with a similarly large number (80%) agreeing that more needed to be done to engage businesses to use the levy.

So exactly what can businesses and the government do to address these knowledge gaps and highlight the opportunities at hand?

Admittedly I didn’t immediately see the value to the Press Association (PA) myself. It took a lot more research of official and some unexpected sources to unpack this new opportunity and create a working strategy to further invest in our people.

I’m a long way from being a subject matter expert, but based on my experience here are my five recommendations for what businesses and the government can do to help qualifying employers realise the levy’s potential:

Look beyond the name

It sounds like a payroll tax that can only be used to support school or college leavers. However, the apprenticeship levy provides unique and exciting options to upskill existing staff at all levels.

At PA the apprenticeship levy is currently funding five people in our finance and HR departments – including four new recruits – and a three-year degree programme to upskill six of our existing managers. Later this year another six staff members will begin working towards a management diploma.

Sift through the chaff

The majority of the apprenticeship levy’s approved courses won’t be relevant to all businesses, and at present employers simply have to dig through reams of information to find the most pertinent ones.

The pay-off, however, is a rewarding development experience for employees and real value for businesses. Our four finance apprentices are working through various modules towards their Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) qualification, while our HR admin recruit is studying business administration.

The exciting and new opportunity comes with the degree course in professional management, which sees six of our current managers studying a comprehensive curriculum covering practical leadership issues. In addition to a BA (Hons) qualification from the Open University on completion, each will receive professional accreditation through the Chartered Management Institute.

We see the programme outlined above as the first of many development opportunities. Should the apprenticeship standards expand we aim to extend the opportunity to other areas of the company.

Call in the marketeers

Why isn’t it easier to surface the most appropriate courses for a business based on its size and specialist areas? There is a massive range of top-quality information available but it’s hard to find without expert guidance.

The National Apprenticeship Service has done well to make occasional calls to see how we’re getting on at PA. However, the calls came after we’d already identified the courses and route we wanted to initially pursue. Down the line, these calls could be complemented by a sustained, sector-specific programme of communications that highlight the most relevant apprenticeship courses for us and similar businesses. A named contact familiar with our sector would also be an invaluable resource.

Ask your allies

One of the most comprehensive breakdowns of the apprenticeship levy that I received came from our company’s auditors in a free client seminar. The auditors wouldn’t ordinarily have been my first stop along this research journey, but that experience reinforced that our immediate networks have a lot to offer. My involvement with bodies like the CIPD, CMI and ILM has also pointed me towards many excellent resources on the levy. I came across the Quayside School of Higher Education through the CMI website and PA is now partnering with them to deliver the BA degree course in professional management.

Starting with the familiar also helped to drown out some of noise from entities that view the apprenticeship levy as a means to cash in.

Checking against progress

I would welcome an official channel where employers can update on their progress with the apprenticeship levy. Others might also find it valuable to have a space where we could have frank conversations about what’s working and what isn't. As well as shaping the way individual businesses utilise the apprenticeship levy, sharing our learning in such a forum should be a good way to help shape future government policy.

Rebecca Buck is head of HR at the Press Association

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