Re-thinking apprenticeships: we should stand firm on core principles

First it was Brexit and Trump. Now we have Cornwall asking us to stay away, and Transport for London asking us not to travel unless we really have to. Where are the certainties these days?

So when a civil servant on a call yesterday said that everything was on the table in the latest thinking about how apprenticeships might respond to the coronavirus crisis it was no surprise that one of the callers tried his luck. “What about the length? Could we have shorter apprenticeships, less than a year?”.

This was a very good briefing session from the National Apprenticeship Service, who were updating intermediary organisations like the Maritime Skills Alliance on the guidance they’re offering around the coronavirus.

Very much to their credit, I thought, the organisers back-tracked immediately to say that there are some core features which they thought Ministers would not back away from – and a minimum length of a year for apprenticeships was one of them.

I was very pleased to hear that. There’s plenty scope to argue over the detail of how apprenticeships are designed and managed, but there are some basic principles which Ministers really ought to stand firm on, or they will be giving-up the real gains made in shaping a high quality programme. Apprenticeships cannot solve every problem in the labour market, and Ministers should not listen to the complaints of those who want the programme to be what it was never designed to be.

There are two big jobs to be done right now:

1 help employers to protect the jobs of their current apprentices
2 give employers the confidence to stick with their next recruitment cohort, even if it’s a bit later than originally planned.

We are in extraordinary times and the Government is right to look at some flexibilities in order to do those things. That might mean oiling the wheels with some money, and it might mean more programme flexibilities. But I hope they will not spoil the core design of the programme; these should be temporary flexibilities only. Don’t destabilise the programme by changing the fundamentals.

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What’s changed in our operating environment with the coronavirus?

As the restrictions of the last couple of months ease and our minds turn towards planning for the next phase I’ve been thinking through what’s changed in the operating environment for maritime skills. Here are eight thoughts, with a first attempt at answering also the related “so what?” question.

1. The UK’s economy will be a lot smaller for an extended period, perhaps as a long as the decade it’s taken us to bounce back from the recession of 2008-9.

– That is likely to lead to a reduction in the amount of training done.
– A smaller economy should mean much more energetic support for business creation rather than training for jobs which don’t exist (shorthand: we need as much emphasis on “enterprise” and “innovation” as we do on “skills” and “training”). Support for business creation might well involve some training (eg putting together new combinations of skills to support what MarRI-UK and others are doing to support innovation, and because experts in making widgets may not be quite so expert in making money through making widgets).
– A smaller home economy should also mean much more energetic promotion of exports – including removal of the constraints on overseas students.

2. From early Autumn onwards there will be a lot of skilled and experienced people, recently redundant, on the open market.

– Many employers may well prefer to employ some of these experienced people rather than invest in apprentices or graduate recruits, so it is likely to be harder to promote those longer career recruitment programmes.
– Most of these experienced people will need no skill enhancement training to get back to work (in-company orientation should suffice); some will need a little (short courses, probably not leading to accreditation); some will need a good deal (perhaps in part through a tailored / sector-specific version of the Government’s National Re-training Scheme).

3. There will probably be some new jobs created as a result of C19, but my guess would be that numbers in the maritime sector will be modest.

– … and the resulting need to train new recruits will therefore also be modest.

4. The future has become much less predictable.

– We have a major challenge to restore employers’ confidence to a level where they are willing to run career programmes (apprenticeships, graduate programmes) again. Conscientious employers (who are the ones who run career programmes) will hesitate to take people on when they don’t know what the future holds, and are less sure than they were what to train people in.
– We should review the shape and content of learning programmes designed to provide the foundation for a career; the old design may no longer be fit for purpose.
– We ought to look at building-in something on the flexibility and resilience these learners will need in order to manage uncertainty and change.

5. The pace of automation and digitisation is likely to increase.

– Everyone needs to adapt, but we should distinguish between different needs and not assume that everyone need extensive re-training: (a) we all need basic user skills – but we’ve all learnt how to use Zoom without any fancy training; (b) some people need to know more as expert users, but that’s a short-course market; (c) and a much smaller number need extensive training to become experts (eg designing or programming the drone which is then flown by an expert user on board a vessel).

6. There has been a great leap forward in use of online learning in the last three months.

– That gives the Maritime Skills Commission a strong basis for an early project to consolidate those gains, by identifying outstanding staff training implications and through publishing best practice guidance (‘what works in what circumstances?’ and, reversing the normal question from ‘what training can be done online?’ to ask instead: ‘what training is left which is much better done onsite?’).
– Greater use of online learning opens up new markets: some of the courses hastily converted to online delivery in a crisis can now be refined and offered to many more customers anywhere in the world – paying customers. There’s a new market here.

7. Despite that the pandemic has not challenged the scale or nature of the core training models on which most of the sector operates.

8. There are contradictory currents around diversity: on the one hand, the weakest usually suffer most in a recession; on the other, much greater use of technology – for example increasing the scope for remote working – should open up opportunities for those with mobility issues.

– For the first part, some people / groups may need protecting / a helping hand; for the second part, there may need to be a nudge of some sort before those opportunities open up.

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