From regional lessons to national results: why the West Midlands’ approach to apprenticeships should be used across the country

By Jose Lopes, Head of Business Engagement at the West Midlands Combined Authority

Any current discussion of apprenticeships needs to begin by addressing the elephant in the room, Covid-19. As a recent report by The Sutton Trust acknowledged, the cross-section of education, training and employment has made apprenticeships particularly vulnerable in the face of the pandemic. More so, the financial crises precipitated by the virus are set to follow the historic trend of disproportionately affecting young people.

The evidence is already growing. Claimant counts have risen 133.9 per cent nationally compared to the same period last year, with a 98.6 per cent rise across the West Midlands Combined Authority region. Meanwhile, the number of apprenticeship postings between June 2019 and June 2020 fell from 10,601 to 5,642.

The pandemic has also highlighted the stark attainment gaps which can be found in many sectors. At the WMCA we are committed to supporting those from disadvantaged backgrounds and hardest to reach, yet this is a difficult task. The Sutton Trust predicts apprenticeship numbers will fall by 36 per cent in disadvantaged areas compared to 23 per cent for more privileged apprentices, due to skewed geographic opportunity.

Clearly, we need urgent and substantive action to both tackle unemployment and provide young people with skills and training that will set them up for long-term success. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has long been a champion for this, having recently announced a large-scale programme of financial incentives to encourage businesses to take on more apprentices.

But, belief in apprenticeships and technical education has been growing for years. The Apprenticeship Levy, launched in 2017, was designed to increase both the quality and number of apprenticeships. While there was a 4.7 per cent rise in apprenticeships nationally during 2018/19, the West Midlands surpassed this with 8.7 per cent growth.

Despite the difficult economic landscape, the WMCA is confident in its dynamic, collaborative, regional skills plan. Our bespoke regional approach is effective at reaching SMEs in a way that is genuinely ground-breaking, focusing on direct, expert facilitated engagement between employers and apprenticeship training providers.

The Combined Authority’s devolved model identifies large businesses which can donate unspent levy to SMEs through the Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Fund. This means apprenticeship funding is strategically used by the SMEs who need it most and is aligned with the identified growth sectors within the region.

The Fund provided training for a record 232 apprentices in June and has supported a total of 1,084 apprentices and 315 SMEs since March 2019. This will continue, with CrossCountry and Chiltern Railways providing access to an additional £300,000, and Enterprise Rent a Car, St Modwen Properties and City of Wolverhampton Council an additional £200,000 to boost jobs and skills at smaller businesses.

This work has had a real impact for the region. By identifying and allocating any unspent levy funds to employers who need it most, we can provide employers with access to the skilled workforce they need, both now and in the future. This place-based approach encourages greater flexibility in skills and training, allowing us to adapt to shifting regional priorities and address new growth sectors, such as green manufacturing and digital technologies.

The benefits of a regional approach to apprenticeships are clear, not only in terms of providing the training and employment for those who need it most, but also ensuring employers have workers with the specific skills needed to help their businesses thrive. As we move towards a post-Covid recovery, efforts to rebuild the economy need to be flexible and regional. Only by doing so can we build strong foundations for the years to come.