A global skills gap is on the horizon: are apprenticeships the answer?

More inclusive apprenticeships could be the answer to the world's impending skills shortage, which according to the WEF is set to hit by 2030.

COVID-19 has led to many things, record-high unemployment levels among them. As employers increasingly prioritise short-term goals, such as the survival of their business, over other objectives they might have been pursuing before the pandemic, they could forget about apprenticeships.

For employers, it would be perilous to discredit apprenticeships. Not only do they help different types of candidates enter and diversify the jobs economy, but more varied talent will soon be required as skills requirements are set to shift within the next decade.

Plugging the future skills gap

At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting last year, they said rapid advancements in technology would require the upskilling of 1 billion people by 2030. They predict that high-tech and interpersonal skills will be in demand as well as experience in human resources, care, and education. According to the WEF, even more pressing for employers is the fact that 42% of core job skills are expected to change by 2022.

While upskilling staff to meet the working economy’s growing demands will be key to business survival, so is ensuring that more candidates from diverse backgrounds get an equal chance at their desired profession – which means supporting apprenticeships. One business that is championing this is advertising giant, Ogilvy. Launched in 2016, The Pipe apprenticeship scheme diversifies entry into what has become known as a white, male, and connections based industry.

The scheme upskills candidates with raw talent rather than those with a plethora of university degrees or industry experience. It is open to applicants working towards a Level 3 qualification, (the equivalent of two A-Levels). Those on the two-year programme will work towards an industry qualification while on an annual salary, which could help establish the importance of apprenticeships over unpaid internships, where wealthier candidates are more likely to be able to work for free and secure a job.

The D&I problem in the creative industries

Schemes such as Ogilvy’s are broadening the definition of ‘vocational training’. Instead of having to choose between financing higher education at university or learning a trade, young people can opt for a middle path and consider a career in the corporate world by literally learning on the job – and being paid for it.

Such initiatives diversify the talent pool coming into sectors such as advertising, where companies may have missed out on talent before as they were perceived as not having the right academic qualifications, industry experience, or connections to be considered. These programmes could help make the creative industries more inclusive in terms of age, social background, and ethnicity. Looking at government statistics from 2017 about representation in the sector, this work is all the more important; it found that while the industry was growing and employing more people than ever before, it remained 90% white and nearly 60% male.

Thankfully, the government is incentivising businesses to take on more apprentices. In 2020 it announced that “any business hiring a new apprentice starting before January 31st, 2021 would receive a hiring incentive of between £3000 and £1500 depending on the apprentice’s age.” This policy has now been extended to March 31st, 2021.

Apprenticeship support among businesses

The government introduced the apprenticeship levy scheme back in 2017 with employers spending over £3m a year on wages required to set aside the equivalent of 0.5% of their annual pay bill to fund staff training. If the funds were unspent after two years, they would be given to smaller businesses.

The first round of funds expired in May 2019, which gave a good insight into how seriously businesses were taking their apprenticeship obligations. Unfortunately, the figures showed that large businesses were not proactive in supporting training or development. In fact, many had their funds returned to the government as they failed to spend the money on their staff in the allocated time – which amounted to £400 million in unspent funds with 55 of the largest employers losing over £1m each.

There have been calls for a reform of the levy scheme, with some critics pointing out that large employers were over-focusing on apprenticeship training at leadership and management levels. This week, Tania Bowers, Legal Counsel and Head of Public Policy at the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo), said:

“Training and developing workers is going to be a key part of the future economic growth of the country and in the week that we celebrate apprentices, it’s important to also highlight how this on-the-job learning scheme can be improved to support the more flexible world of work. In our view, it really is important that apprenticeships are extended to contingent workers – including contract professionals – to support this crucially valuable flexible segment of the workforce and help them develop skills in line with the changing business environment.”

While a representative for the Department of Education said 2019’s unspent funds went to support apprenticeship training schemes with smaller employers, it’s vital that larger employers with the budgets, hiring power, and sector influence take full advantage of the scheme and target apprentices at entry-level.

If they don’t, businesses will fail to diversify their workforce or encourage career progression for underrepresented groups. Training staff at earlier stages in their development could also help disseminate the learning of vital new skills as they progress in the business and teach those below them.

But if businesses continue to disregard the importance of skills training, which includes apprenticeships, they could fall foul of a greater foe than the pandemic – the skills gap is coming, and the clock’s ticking.

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