Friday 7 February 2020 4:30 am

With apprenticeships, firms can teach old dogs new tricks

Director for people advisory, Grant Thornton

We are living through extraordinary times. Disruptive tech innovations, dizzying political upheavals, and growing public demand for action on issues from inequality to the environment are all contributing to a landscape of unprecedented change. 

But we are still clinging to outdated ideas of how — and when — we should gain new skills. 

Read more: Education secretary urges parents to rethink apprenticeships

The use of apprenticeships is a great example of how outmoded attitudes can hold businesses back. In our recent research, we found that 44 per cent of mid-market employers do not use apprenticeships as a means of upskilling their people. More than half of those surveyed still think that apprenticeships are for people at the start of their career. 

On top of this, a recent report by education think tank EDSK labelled half of the apprenticeship courses in the UK “fake”. It claimed that funds from the apprenticeship levy have been spent on jobs that are just re-labelled degrees or training courses. 


This perpetuates the idea that apprenticeships should be limited to young people fresh out of school. It is time for this to change. 

About 92 per cent of UK mid-market businesses will need skills that do not exist in their workforce in the next five years. Our research found that 56 per cent of companies have begun to use the levy to fill these skills gaps by investing in current employees. 

The levy is a tool that helps companies increase employees’ skills, and counter the perception that apprenticeships are for entry-level workers only. It covers apprenticeships of all levels, is available for existing employees as well as new recruits, and has no age limit. As such, it helps employers address three of the biggest issues faced — skills development, diversity, and top talent retention. Currently, 43 per cent of mid-market employers say that the levy enables them to develop a diverse workforce. 

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Since the introduction of the levy, my firm Grant Thornton has been focusing on broadening our talent pool, so that we have greater diversity of thought and are better able to serve our clients. 

We also use levy-funded apprenticeships as a catalyst to remove barriers in recruiting talent. University is a fantastic way to gain skills, but it is expensive. Many talented people just can’t afford it. Apprenticeships allow people, no matter what their background, to earn, learn, and get qualifications without the costs. 

Diversity is not just about who you hire. It is about building a team of future leaders who will help your businesses flourish well into the future. 


For example, Luton’s borough council is using its levy funding to teach leadership skills. Abid Quershi loves working for the council, but recently realised that he would not progress without extra qualifications. Using the levy, the council enrolled Abid on our executive MBA apprenticeship scheme in partnership with Cranfield School of Management. Abid graduates next year, but is optimistic to secure a promotion that he would not have been able to apply for before. 

Read more: London businesses ‘unaware’ of improvements to apprenticeship levy

Similarly, facilities services company ABM uses the levy at every level of the business. Since developing a catalogue of apprenticeships, the business has enrolled 23 mid-senior managers on our leadership programmes offered in partnership with Activate Business School. With a longer duration than previous courses and coupled with coaching support, ABM hopes the new apprenticeships will build managers’ confidence, enabling them to lead more effectively. 

Levy-funded apprenticeships are versatile. Considering the best use of these tools to deliver clearly defined business needs can yield outstanding results on a wide range of issues. But clinging to old-fashioned ideas will leave you behind.

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