Valuing apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are a useful tool in the process of upskilling the labour market, filling supply gaps and increasing economic competitiveness. agendaNi explores their status and funding in Northern Ireland.

An apprenticeship enables a new or existing employee to immerse themselves in a working environment alongside experienced staff in order to learn new skills and enhance the existing skill set. At the same time, an apprentice also receives training (for example, on a day-release basis) to attain vocational and essential skills qualifications. Therefore, apprentices are usually with their employer for four days and with a training provider for one day. Time spent with a training provider is paid for by the employer.

The stated objective of providing training for young people through apprenticeships is “the development of highly skilled and innovative workforce that will contribute to the twin goals of social inclusion and economic success for Northern Ireland”.

Published in 2014, Securing Our Success: The Northern Ireland Strategy on Apprenticeships is supported by interwoven policy initiatives which include, among others, the Programme for Government, Economic Strategy and Skills Strategy. This support was continued through the ApprenticeshipsNI 2017 programme which aims to:

• provide knowledge, understanding and competence for apprentices;

• offer quality training to fulfil framework requirements;

• raising skills of the labour market;

• provide opportunities for progression to higher and further education and training; and

• support the direct involvement of employers in training.

ApprenticeshipsNI is part-funded by the ESF, the rationale for which is to extend employment opportunities, enhance skills and adaptability. There are seven key elements incorporating: permanent remunera­­­­tive employment for the apprentice; payment of a wage commensurate with the industry rate for that job; a framework comprising directed training, related knowledge, appropriate essential skills and structured workplace training; a Personal Training Plan outlining an agreed progression route; a Delivery Agreement between contractor, apprentice and employer; a funding structure which supports training costs and delivers payments on achievement; and support and commitment of relevant representative organisations.

The directed (off-job) training element of apprenticeships undertaken by those aged 16-24 is funded by the Northern Ireland European Social Fund Programme 2014-2020 (ESF) and the Department for the Economy (DfE).

Likewise, 50 per cent of the funding for the directed training portion of Level Two and Three apprenticeships undertaken by individuals aged 25 and over is made available by the ESF and DfE.

In addition, the Employer Incentive Payment is available to employers whose apprentices successfully complete a Level Two and/or Three framework and are issued with an ApprenticeshipsNI Full Framework Certificate by Training Programmes Branch.

Made available by the ApprenticeshipNI Programme, this payment ranges from £250 to £1,500 and is contingent on the apprenticeship funding band (entailing both the complexity and level of the apprenticeship, as well as the age of the apprentice on the programme).

Employers are obligated to contract apprentices for at least 21 hours of work per week, including day release for directed training, with a remuneration level set at a baseline rate of the National Minimum Wage.

For Higher Level Apprenticeships, DfE will facilitates training supplier costs for directed training, however the onus is on the employer to remunerate apprentices for contracted hours, including training days. While there are no current financial incentives for employers, there are alternative non-financial incentives available to those employing a higher-level apprentice.

Individuals aged 25 and over can only enrol in sector-specific apprenticeships in sectors which are an economic priority for Northern Ireland.

Despite a technical increase in the education budget of 4.3 per cent for 2018/19, in reality, as a ‘flat cash’ allocation, the budget merely matches 2017/18, representing a cut in real terms. As such, higher and further education institutions will not receive more money.

Likewise, UK businesses with an annual wage bill of more than £3 million are required to pay an Apprenticeship Levy (aimed at creating three million apprenticeships by 2020). However, while companies in Great Britain can then reclaim this money to be invested in training courses for their apprentices, this is not applicable in Northern Ireland where there is no net increase in the budget as a result of the levy.

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