Ambitious for Apprenticeships

On the 14th July, we proposed and seconded a Motion calling on the County Council to take a much more proactive stance to Apprenticeships.

We’re delighted to be able to announce that this motion was successfully voted through.

The reason that we believed this motion was necessary should be obvious.

In Lowestoft, the technical and manufacturing businesses that still remain have to retain staff members that are already passed retirement age – and some are well in to their 70s – because of the dearth of skilled workers available in the area.

In a town that is well-stocked with eager young people looking for a fulfilling career that will provide them a good standard of living, but is also blighted with among the highest youth unemployment and NEET levels in the County, this is obscene.

So it is down to bodies like the County Council to step up to its responsibilities and meet this need.

The Administration at Suffolk County Council’s record on apprenticeships is not good. They will however point to grandiose initiatives, such as ‘Apprenticeships Suffolk’, which has led to pupils in every secondary school and academy across Suffolk to participate in Apprenticeship workshops; they will say that young people have received support through the County Council’s online services that provides vacancy information and advice to applicants to support them in their quest to secure an Apprenticeship.

These initiatives sound positive, and indeed they are positive. But they are piecemeal and set up to be as inexpensive as possible, rather than effective.

If you want proof, then the Council’s record should speak for itself.

As things currently stand, Suffolk County Council employs just 18 apprentices across all departments – or 0.33% of the total workforce – and there is no centralised system for recruiting an apprentice. Recruitment is down to individual managers and services to decide upon, and this is complicated by the need to identify a training provider and then go through the standard HR recruitment procedure as per their directorate processes.

For the few apprentices that are recruited, there is no procedure or facility to monitor their progress or outcomes, so there is no way of measuring their development and tailoring their work education to their needs and skills.

The administrations poor record is further shown by the £1.4m that they have already earmarked in reserves for apprenticeships. Since this fund was established, it has been spent down only a tiny amount – far below the Council’s own budget estimates.

What is the point of earmarking taxpayer’s money, of securing a fund for a worthwhile scheme that would genuinely benefit people, businesses and the Suffolk economy, but then refuse to spend it?

Soon, new developments from Central Government will impact directly upon the Council and influence its approach to future apprenticeship provision.

The Government’s new ‘Apprenticeship Levy’, which is due to be introduced in April next year, will radically alter the way we fund apprenticeships by redirecting the funding for qualification delivery to the employer, rather than to the training provider. As a large employer, this Council will be required to pay a levy that equates to 0.5% of monthly salary costs – which can be estimated as coming to around £800,000 to £900,000 annually.

In addition to this, public sector apprenticeship targets will require all public sector bodies with a workforce of 250 or more to provide apprenticeships that equate to a minimum of 2.3% of their workforce. For Suffolk, this means that around 125 apprentice opportunities per year will need to be created.

Late last year, when the Labour Group asked the Cabinet directly if they would adhere to this target, they gave no firm guarantees that they would. However, thanks to this motion, they now have to.

The motion’s most salient point was that the Administration should consider establishing Suffolk County Council as an ‘Apprenticeship Training Agency’.

A model that has been successfully adopted by a number of Council’s, and we have been in contact with Derbyshire County Council and Bradford City Council regarding this, is to franchise the Council’s Apprenticeship recruitment out to a private Apprenticeship Training Agency with the aim of bringing in the 125 apprentices that this Council needs to meet its target of 2.3%.

While we were not prescriptive, the Labour Group proposed that the Council pursues this policy with the aim of building its expertise and structures to accommodate a consistent policy of apprenticeship recruitment through a Council-run ATA. Once a Council-run ATA is established, it would then be possible to encourage private sector employers to make use of the facility, ensuring that the County Council was at the centre of apprenticeship creation across the county.

If the dream of a Lowestoft that is at the cutting edge of the energy and Wind Turbine industry in the UK is to be realised, and if this County is to remain secure and prosperous through these uncertain times, this Council must lead the way.

We must meet the challenge of providing our predominantly unskilled youngsters with attractive vocational qualifications and give them the skills they will need for a career within growth industries.

Thanks to the success of this motion, Apprenticeships – provided by employers in both the public and private sector – must and will represent a significant part of this ambition.

Cllrs Len Jacklin, County Councillor for Oulton, and Keith Patience, County Councillor for Gunton

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