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Professor Helen Higson discusses how apprenticeships can help our economy bounce back

It is important to reflect on the challenges that the lockdown, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, had on the learning and skills agenda in our country and how we can move on.

What help do young people need right now? Do they know what pathways are open to them? And what steps can we take to try and help them make these decisions about their futures?

These are all critical questions that need to be addressed.

One of the great strengths of the West Midlands is its youthful and diverse population, which brings great advantages to many of our region’s key business sectors. It is imperative that we support young people through this challenging period. Their contribution will be crucial as we rebuild our economy together.

While much of the media attention has focused upon the impact on students and the higher education sector, there has been much less focus on the impact on apprenticeships. The impact on apprenticeships is a key area of focus for the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) Employment and Skills Board (ESB).  There is support available for existing apprentices.  GBSLEP recently launched its own employment and apprenticeships triage services, but the support needs to be highlighted even more strongly.

Despite apprenticeships becoming an increasingly popular and important route for school leavers, there are still lingering misconceptions and a lack of awareness of the fulfilling career opportunities that apprenticeships can lead to.  Many will not realise, for example, that apprenticeships can be both a degree-level learning pathway in their own right, as well as a route onto a degree course.  Sixteen percent of 16-18 year olds surveyed said their school or college didn’t provide them with enough information about apprenticeships, while more than one in ten young people claimed apprenticeships had a reputation for being low-skilled and low paid.

Perceptions of apprenticeships have come a long way, but more recognition and promotion of them must be on the agenda for employers.  Apprenticeships offer many advantages, including the opportuntity to develop important work-related skills like leadership, communication and analytical thinking on the job. Apprentices can put their learning quickly into practice at the same time as earning a salary.

Our country has some of the best quality learning providers, teachers and institutions in the world, and whether you are at university, college, or learning on the job on an apprenticeship programme within a sector you love, you can learn from the very best.

There are many advantages for employers to consider too; apprentices can be employed at all different levels, from school leavers, to people that want to further their careers to careers changers, and employers can adapt the training an apprentice receives according to the needs of their business. Retention of apprentices has also been shown to be high, with employees who have been trained in-house tending to be amongst the most highly motivated and committed to the company.

Apprenticeships should not be treated like the second-choice option, not now, or at any other time.

Over the past four months, young people in our region have suffered huge changes to their lives resulting from Covid-19. Every single one of them will have had their work, training or education disrupted in one way or another.

Yet young people themselves hold a trump card in how they can support our economy to bounce back from the pandemic. The determination and fresh perspective of young people is consistently highlighted as a positive for employers, and now more so than ever. Young people can help the economy get going again by applying their determination, fresh thinking and enthusiasm to the task in hand.

For all kinds of reasons, the year ahead is going to be tough – nobody is denying that. Yet never has the education and skills agenda been more important. For an economy coming out of lockdown and looking for the skills required to help it recover quickly, training needs to be ready and up and running. Learners both existing and new can, in turn, provide employers with the skills they need to come through this challenging time and thrive again.

The impact of Covid-19 has also had a disproportionate effect on independent training providers who are involved in apprenticeship learning. The impact of this has been keenly felt in certain sectors of our economy – in hospitality, construction, transport and retail, to name just a few examples. The GBSLEP ESB is playing its part in helping to mitigate this impact on independent training providers and employers, and the resulting effect on apprenticeship provision; but there is still so much more to be done.

The poor messaging around training and furloughing, and the opportunity lost to a whole generation of young people, has made many feel helpless. New opportunities will, however, emerge as we move forward. Our city, region and country needs the next generation of skilled individuals if we are to emerge quickly from the Covid-19 pandemic.

GBSLEP is looking to meet these challenges head on by supporting employers to keep apprentices on their existing programmes, while encouraging companies to recruit more if at all possible.

The new GBSLEP apprenticeship triage service will support employers to continue training staff who were previously on apprenticeship programmes, but who have recently been furloughed. It will match apprentices, or those who have been made redundant, to new vacancies. There is also guidance for apprentices as they search for new roles or to look develop their learning further.

We want to help employers to use this time to develop the skills needed for subsequent growth. and to ensure the learning programmes in place are the best they can possibly be.

Awareness of apprenticeships has come a long way, but now more than ever they deserve recognition and promotion as a world-class learning option.  Let us help you increase productivity and success.

By Professor Helen Higson, Chair of the Employment and Skills Board at Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP)