Apprenticeships: Challenges and opportunities for local authorities

Author: Jo Faragher

We look at the challenges that local authorities face in meeting the public sector apprenticeship target, alongside the opportunities that apprenticeships can present for local government employers.

With budgets cut to the bone, apprenticeships should have a lot to offer local authorities: a chance to "grow their own" talent, build a pipeline of skills they will need for the future, and make their workforces more diverse by targeting younger candidates or those who might not share the same access to the labour market. As large employers, most will be paying the apprenticeship levy (introduced in 2017 and requiring those with a payroll of more than £3 million to pay 0.5% of their wage bill into an apprenticeship funding pot), and will be under pressure to use these funds wisely.

However, local authorities have the added challenge of meeting the public sector apprenticeship target.

The public sector apprenticeship target

Under the target, public-sector bodies with 250 or more staff in England should aim to employ, on average, at least 2.3% of their staff as new apprentice starts between April 2017 and the end of March 2021.

Related resources

How to employ an apprentice

Apprenticeship agreement

The Government says employers must show that they "have regard" to the target, meaning it is incorporated into their workforce planning decisions for both new recruits and career development for existing staff. If they are struggling to meet the target, they can use the Apprenticeship Activity Return (the report that must be sent to the Department for Education) to explain any obstacles - such as the relevant standard not being available or difficulty creating enough roles for eligible apprenticeships.

While some areas within the public sector have met or exceeded the target, overall progress towards the target remains slow: in the first year of reporting (2017/18), 11% of public-sector bodies that provided a return had met or exceeded the target, but 89% had not.

Obstacles to meeting the target

There are a number of factors affecting local authorities' ability to meet this target. According to the Local Government Association (LGA), although 95% of councils agree that skills development is a key priority, many have had difficulty accessing the apprenticeship standards they needed as they were not available when the levy was introduced.

Following the 2012 Richard Review of Apprenticeships in England, the Government decided to replace existing apprenticeship frameworks with more rigorous standards, but the transition in some areas has been slow. "As a result, there were many key areas for local government where apprenticeship standards were not in place, and in some cases, where the frameworks they were replacing had been switched off," concludes the LGA in its guidance on the public sector apprenticeships target reporting process.

On top of this, tight resources mean many councils are not able to allocate sufficient resource to apprenticeship programmes (to cover administration and recruitment processes for example) and procuring training takes time, meaning there can be delays in apprenticeships starting.

The LGA points out that the target does not necessarily reflect individual authorities' capacity to deliver, or their need or demand for apprentices. Schools have been a particular area of concern in terms of meeting the target, and are often one of the biggest local authority employers. "A lack of approved standards slowed take-up, though there are signs of a modest increase after teaching assistant and business manager standards were approved," adds the LGA. "Many maintained schools don't have the resources to take on an apprentice."

The need for greater flexibility

Karen Grave, president of the Public Services People Managers Association, believes there has been "a real understanding of the opportunities the levy provides" for local authorities in terms of recruiting younger people. But the difficulty has been in the implementation, she says: "One of the mistakes the Government made was to assume they could [impose the target] in isolation of wider strategic workforce planning and without any infrastructure in place." She argues that appropriate targets aligned to individual authorities' desired outcomes would be better, and there needs to be more flexibility on how the levy can be spent.

One of the mistakes the Government made was to assume they could [impose the target] in isolation of wider strategic workforce planning and without any infrastructure in place.

Karen Grave, President of the PPMA

Many local authorities agree that there should be greater flexibility in terms of implementation - the requirement that an apprentice spends 20% of their time in "off-the-job" training, for example, can be a challenge where a department needs to cover that position when the person is absent. Government research found that more than a third of public-sector bodies had reported challenges with regard to this requirement.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), believes there can be misunderstanding about what can be included to comply with the 20% "off-the-job" requirement, and that for very practical roles, a lot can be learnt on the job itself. "It's not always about leaving the workplace to go to a classroom - a lot can be done in the workplace itself. Having said that, for some apprenticeships, 10 to 15% might work better," he says.

Social care apprenticeships

In areas where councils struggle to recruit, apprenticeships can provide a vital lifeline. Hertfordshire County Council, for example, has used apprenticeships to attract people into social care since 2004. Last year, the council took in 157 apprentices and aims to hit 200 this year. There have been some hurdles, such as waiting for certain qualifications to be signed off, but apprenticeships play an important role in workforce planning. "We've deliberately set the wage above the apprenticeship minimum, at around £9 per hour, as if you pay people too little you won't get the loyalty. We've also used the bait of career progression - once you've hit the top of your pay scale, what can we look at next?", says Paul Rainbow, senior learning and development officer for adult social care.


What is the apprenticeship levy?

How can an employer access funding from the apprenticeship levy?

What can employers spend apprenticeship levy funding on?

Are employers required to pay apprentices the national minimum wage?

While there is no formal agreement in terms of sharing levy funding, care providers used by the council can use its facilities to train up their apprentices. Rainbow adds that the authority is "creative" about how it deals with the 20% off-the-job rule, making it up with workshops, industry visits and mentoring.

However, Hertfordshire County Council's experience is not representative of all authorities. A survey by AELP found that 59% of providers that train adult care workers were either reducing the number they take on or withdrawing from the programme altogether, describing the prescribed funding rate on level 2 and 3 apprenticeships as "completely unviable" (a maximum of £3,000 is allocated to cover the costs of training and assessing an adult care worker at level 2 or 3).

Innovating to solve recruitment challenges

One opportunity the apprenticeship levy has afforded is a chance to re-evaluate and often centralise entry-level recruitment. At Hackney Council, the introduction of the levy saw apprenticeships gain "a single identity", according to Carole Williams, cabinet member for employment, skills and HR. The council takes on three cohorts per year and has met the public sector apprenticeship target as demand for the qualifications is high - there are often around 20 applications per apprenticeship and recruitment days are always oversubscribed. 67% of apprentices stay with the council after their apprenticeship. Williams says: "This has been key to us increasing the number of residents now working for the council".

Williams estimates that Hackney Council has spent around 36% of its levy funding, compared with an average spend of 15% of total funds entering employers' accounts. "Apprenticeships have helped us to innovate in how we solve our recruitment challenges," she explains. "They bring in skills, there is clear progression through a career path if they want it, and it's reduced gender and race gaps in some digital roles."

This is part of our inclusive economy strategy. We want our residents to share in the growth of the borough.

Carole Williams, Hackney Council

The council is also using it to upskill existing employees, for example with level 3 and level 5 management qualifications. Cleaning and waste services staff can access qualifications to increase their skills, and all apprentices are paid the London living wage. "This is part of our inclusive economy strategy. We want our residents to share in the growth of the borough. It can be easy to just recruit high numbers to meet targets but you also need to meet the needs of the community," Williams adds.

Building a "ladder of standards" through apprenticeships helps employees see a longer-term career in public service, adds Dawe from AELP: "It's important for diversity of entry routes - people can see a path if they wish to follow it, and the degree apprenticeships have been a real game changer."

Opportunities for lifelong learning

Apprenticeships can also offer local authorities the opportunity to build management and leadership capability for the future within their existing workforce, says Karen Grave from the Public Services People Managers Association. Crucially, it ring-fences funding for training in a sector that has faced drastic cuts that could continue for years to come. Grave adds: "So much of the local government training budget has been cut that the levy makes up some of that shortfall. We can prepare people for lifelong learning by offering qualifications to older career changers, for example - there's a societal role in offering apprenticeships too."

As the market begins to mature and understanding of these opportunities grows, local authorities should see their spending edge closer towards meeting those targets.

Case study: Croydon Council

In August 2019, Croydon Council started an ambitious initiative to hire 100 apprentices in 100 days in its own organisation and across other local employers. Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017, it has reframed its apprenticeship offering to ensure that young people and residents who face barriers getting into employment are offered opportunities to build a career. Apprenticeships sit within the economic growth division of the council, rather than with HR.

Within the council itself, there are 75 apprentices currently registered with the Digital Apprenticeship Service, across a range of roles and ages. "We looked at where skills gaps were - Croydon University Hospital is one of the biggest local employers so social care and health apprenticeships were important, but also construction (the area is undergoing a lot of regeneration) and digital/IT," explains Manjul Shahul Hameed, the cabinet member who looks after apprenticeships. Training for some qualifications such as business administration is done in-house, but a number of external specialists support with other apprenticeships, and the council aims to procure training locally where possible.

In terms of meeting the public sector apprenticeship target, the council has faced a number of hurdles, such as changing the perception among young people that apprenticeships are not as viable an option as A-levels and university. A few desired standards have not been available, such as environmental services or trading standards, but overall this has not had a negative impact, she adds. Newer standards such as a heritage apprenticeship or mentoring qualification have opened up new avenues.

Offering the London living wage is crucial in terms of attracting high-calibre candidates, and the council works with local voluntary-sector organisations to boost its chances of recruiting 100 apprentices in 100 days. Croydon Council has not been able to use all of its levy training funding, so has opted to use the levy transfer facility (where employers can transfer a maximum of 25% of their annual funds to other employers) to support other local employers. It also offers advice to other local authorities on making the most of apprenticeships as an entry point.