There have been repeated attempts to promote the use of apprenticeships in the public and private sectors. From direct financial incentives for companies, to linking community benefit clauses and community infrastructure levies to training positions in local government contracts, councils and government departments have sought to embed apprenticeships into business and procurement opportunities.
And rightly so. Apprenticeships counterbalance an over-reliance on university education, not least for employers who need industry-relevant experience in their job applicants. Estimates of the long-term return to the economy on apprentices are anything from £18-40 for every £1 spent training them. The value of apprenticeships is in no doubt, but this value lacks the clear corresponding commitment needed from the government. Legislation is needed that hardwires an automatic apprenticeship clause into local and central government contracts, amounting to an apprenticeship ‘levy’, that creates a legal obligation to take on apprentices proportionate to the size of the contract and the number of employees engaged in the project’s delivery.
In the absence of this legislation, a small number of Labour councils have taken creative approaches to embed apprenticeships into procurement. Southwark used section 106 agreements, while Sheffield and Leeds introduced community benefit clauses on apprenticeships. All of this is laudable. The isolated efforts of local councils stand as beacons for good practice and force stark contrasts with the poor practice of coalition government departments, which take on virtually no apprentices directly and keep even fewer on as permanent employees.
Some argue that, since these Labour councils show that apprenticeship clauses can be put in place, legislation isn’t needed. But the overwhelming lack of such measures suggest to me that legal footing for an apprenticeship levy embedded in every public-private sector contract is needed to guarantee a nationwide rollout. There is wariness around UK and EU procurement law that continues to dampen many local authorities’ enthusiasm for forcing apprenticeship clauses through unilaterally. Procurement in the UK already attracts criticism for being too complex for private companies: ensuring that businesses know in advance exactly what will be expected of them will promote confidence in a more transparent, uniform procurement process across the country. Finally (and I speak as someone who spent nearly a year unemployed and struggling to find work), as long as an apprenticeship levy is not mandatory, there will remain a job lottery for young people in which the council they live in dictates their chances of serious work-based training.
Labour MPs called on the government earlier this year to impose apprenticeship agreements on all central government contracts worth over £1m. Enterprising Labour councils have stuck to around a £100,000 threshold. This is not just an opportunity for nationwide headline figures, but for apprenticeships in every community across the country. While examples of best practice focus on the value of the contract, I would point out that contractors have local or regional HR departments, press teams, project managers and logistics officers. Linking the levy not just to the contract value but to the employees working in each sector within the company could open up apprenticeships at a local level in all of these fields.
If apprenticeships are to become the respected career path they ought to be, there needs to be an automatic apprenticeship clause in any local or central government contract in the same way there is for green space in section 106 monies, and road improvements and shops in the community infrastructure levy. No one would argue that apprenticeships aren’t as important to our communities as shrubbery and slip roads, and they need legislative backing that reflects this.
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