The Apprenticeship Levy system isn’t perfect, but the highways sector can’t miss out on opportunities to attract much-needed new talent - of all ages and from all walks of life. Businesses need to be proactive and creative to make the system work for them now, while also continuing to push for change, argues Liz Garvey, HR director at FM Conway.
Starting from where we are
Challenges no doubt remain around the Apprenticeship Levy. This publication recently reported on the difficulties around monies being released by central government, with just £108m of the £2bn raised by UK employers to the end of February. Highways businesses specifically are grappling with the lack of approved highways maintenance apprenticeships and training courses that qualify for payment with levy funds, making it hard to develop the particular skills our sector requires.
Change is certainly needed, and good work is being done by industry trade bodies to lobby government and push for reform. However, we cannot simply sit by while this process happens. We need to make the system work for our sector now, or risk missing out on important cohorts of talent that can be brought into our sector through a diverse and inclusive apprenticeship programme.
Tackling the skills gap across the board
Since the start of the levy, apprenticeships nationally have declined as businesses have struggled to claim and allocate funds through the system. At FM Conway, both the number of apprenticeship roles and variety of opportunities we offer have expanded. We have also experienced strong growth in the number of people applying for these opportunities. We believe that this is a result of the valuable educational partnerships we have developed and flexibility in thinking about how the levy should be put to best use. Our business is not alone in taking this approach, but it needs to become commonplace across the sector if we are to stand a realistic chance of getting to grips with the skills shortage.
Most importantly, apprenticeships are not just for young people but for all ages and backgrounds: from school leavers to those seeking a career change, or parents returning to work. For us, this means ensuring we are going out to the community to support teachers, careers advisers and job centre teams to help them encourage as diverse a talent pool as possible into an attractive career in construction.
Recruiting more people is only part of solving the highways skills crisis. We face shortages at all levels of the highways sector, so we need to be flexible and use the levy to address challenges at every level of business. We also need to identify how we retain talent and help employees to thrive and grow within the sector.
There are myriad approved qualifications that can be funded by the levy for helping people to make the next – or a different – step in their careers, whether it’s developing existing technical abilities or learning softer, management-related skills.
In our business, for example, we have been using levy monies to fund a vital supervisor development programme, ensuring that the programme meets the standards required and is validated by external awarding bodies. We’re also using it to support skills development for people who may need redeployment into new roles, such as transitioning to become professional LGV drivers.
Working with partners
We cannot afford to lose interested talent and where FM Conway has made a commitment to people that cannot be met using the levy, we continue to fund their training ourselves or work with our educational partners to offer alternative routes to approved qualifications. We are fortunate at FM Conway that this commitment to ensuring that everyone meets their full potential comes right from the top. Our CEO, Michael Conway, has personally championed our apprentice initiatives, challenging the business to achieve targets in terms of numbers of new apprenticeships.
Not all businesses will be able to fund courses using their own resources and the other solution for us has been to have honest and open discussions with our training partners. Where people have applied for apprenticeship standards that have yet to be approved, we are working with providers to offer alternatives that will transition into the appropriate highways or civil engineering qualifications at a later date.
The levy system is not yet perfect, but the skills shortage is too great a threat to the future of our sector for highways businesses to sit on their hands while the system is evolved. We need to be bold and creative, finding solutions to work within the current framework while continuing to push for change. It’s a careful balancing act that requires flexibility in thinking and strong partnerships across the sector – the very skills that we put to good use on the nation’s roads everyday could in fact help safeguard the highways sector’s future.