Karin Smyth MP urges Government to step up support for apprentices during Coronavirus crisis

Bristol South is one of the areas of the UK in which the lowest percentage of 18-year-olds go to university – less than 1 in 5 (see earlier article). Quality apprenticeships offer a route to degree-level qualifications and decent career prospects for those who don’t take the university route. It creates options, where there otherwise would not be many. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been championing apprenticeships since I was elected to Bristol South in 2015.

My annual apprenticeships fair with City of Bristol College, Bristol City Council and the Department for Work and Pensions  shining  a light on this important route to a quality career  and links people up with these opportunities.   

People have been contacting me concerned about the impact of workplace and school and college closures since the very beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak. Apprenticeships straddle these two elements and I was immediately concerned about what this might mean for apprentices in Bristol South and  beyond.

I’ve spoken with the Principal at City of Bristol College about the challenges they face, as well as the  Apprenticeships lead at Bristol City Council.  Both  raised concerns about  the sector’s ability to continue with the progress that has been made in this area in recent years without further targeted support.

As well as the college and the council,  I’m in touch with local businesses who employ apprentices  and  independent training providers – many of whom attend  my annual apprenticeships fair in Hengrove.  Government support announced so far does not help many of them.

Disappointingly, but perhaps predictably, new start figures for apprentices have dropped dramatically since the start of the year as many employers focus on the short-term survival of their business.  A recent survey by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) found around 60 per cent of employers had stopped recruiting apprentices altogether as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic;  with it also having a significant impact on the numbers of apprentices who will  successfully  complete their apprenticeship.

Current apprentices face an uncertain future - when will they be assessed? Will there be a job for them at the end of their furlough? Can they finish their apprenticeship?  These are all questions that, for many, remain unanswered.  Furthermore, it is not clear  if, and when, employers will take on  any  new apprentices.

At the start of the outbreak in the UK,  I asked the  Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson  what support the Government planned to provide businesses and the education sector to maintain apprenticeships during this time (see earlier article).

As Chair of the Apprenticeships All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), I have also written to Apprenticeships Minister  Gillian Keegan  highlighting the challenges and to ask for further government support.  We  want to see greater flexibility in the Apprenticeship Levy and have asked that the deadline to spend this money be extended. Another issue of concern is that currently providers are given a 12-week period in which to find an apprentice another employer if they are made redundant. This is clearly unrealistic in the current climate and we have asked for this window to be extended.  We also asked that the government extend the financial guarantees given to colleges for A level provision, to be extended to apprenticeships – I believe deeply in parity of opportunity.

Working with employers, training providers, local authorities and  Labour  colleagues, we’ve  spent  many  years trying to support more people through  decent apprenticeships and we have some good examples of this here in Bristol. 

As we come through this crisis and begin to think about recovery and  creating a workforce for the  future, apprenticeships  have an ever-important role to play.  Many will lose their jobs as a result of the Coronavirus crisis. It will also have an impact on pupil’s educational attainment. Apprenticeships are one significant way that we can help people back into work while filling existing and new skills gaps.

The Minister  has since recognised  this, saying: ‘Apprenticeships will play a vital role in securing our economic recovery, post Coronavirus.”   The government now needs to step up its  support  for  apprentices, employers and training providers  to ensure that the groundwork that has been done in this area is not lost.