As we slowly start to emerge from months of lockdown and economic paralysis, it is imperative that we now start to consider how we are going to improve the UK’s performance in a post-pandemic, post Brexit world.

The first of these exercises is outlined in the final report of the Covid Recovery Commission, which was published. Set up by the Chairman of Tesco, Sir John Allan, the commission consisted of ten leading business figures including Shell UK, McKinsey, Admiral Insurance and Babcock International. Its remit was to define a “national prosperity plan” and to address longstanding problems of weak productivity and inequality.

One of the eye-catching objectives of the Commission – and one that plays directly to the government’s agenda to spread more job opportunities equally throughout the country so that young people are not forced to migrate to the major cities to look for work – is to create at least one globally competitive industry in every region by 2030. This, in effect, should start to reverse the noticeable decline in apprenticeships over the last decade and to close the skills gap that is prevalent across so many of the country’s industry sectors. According to the Department of Education, apprentice numbers have fallen from a high of 521,000 in 2011/12 to a low of 323,000 in 2019/20.

It is imperative that employers start to grasp the initiative. Jennifer Coupland, Chief Executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, insists there is reason for hope.

“The number of people starting apprenticeships halved over the first national lockdown and we’re still waiting to see the impact of the recent restrictions. However, many employers plan to resume recruitment as soon as possible and want to use apprentices as a key part of their Covid-19 recovery plans. The institute has rolled out measures supporting more online learning and assessment, enabling apprentices to continue training and complete their apprenticeships despite the pandemic.”

Jennifer Coupland, Chief Executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education

One good example of an industry sector where apprenticeships are being actively supported is in Manufacturing and Industry. Make UK, backed by the National Manufacturing Skills Taskforce, recently unveiled a new strategy to help, retain, as well as recruit apprentices in the next 18 months. The introduction of the Apprenticeship levy four years ago was meant to create a central cash pot so more people could be trained from scratch or up-skilled. But with an average four-year engineering apprenticeship costing a business £40,000 to deliver and just £27,000 of that cost claimable from levy funds, the system left businesses struggling to pay to train an apprentice, and money was left unspent.

Releasing up to 20% of levy funds immediately to help support wage costs is the first critical ask to boost apprenticeship numbers. Make UK are unequivocal about the importance of apprenticeships in helping to restore the UK’s prosperity.

“For too long, vocational education has been looked down on and seen as an undesirable educational route for our young people, who are, instead, encouraged to embark on a full university degree.”

Make UK

At the same time, however, we face a real and growing skills crisis in our country. An enormous wave of lost opportunity is about to come crashing down on the next generation of employees, with a third of England’s 16-19-year-olds having low, basic skills. This affects us all, but it is the most disadvantaged who pay the highest price by slipping into a concoction of wage stagnation, fading hope and inertia. If this is to change, we must raise the esteem in which vocational and skills training is held in, and apprenticeships have a major role to play in that.

Another example of a company actively supporting an apprenticeship drive in a local area is LB Bentley, a company based in Gloucester that delivers creative and innovative engineered solutions. Working with local schools and colleges, the company offers a four-year apprenticeship, including both college education and full-time business employment at the end of the 4-year term. Angela Carrol, the Sales and Proposal Coordinator at LB Bentley has acknowledged “the very real skills gap we have here in the UK” and believes we need to give young people every support possible to become “the workforce of tomorrow”.

So as Make UK and LB Bentley are demonstrating, we need to ensure the training and development of the UK’s young talent does not stall as the country recovers from the pandemic, and that employers continue to take action to support the future workforce where possible. Apprenticeship programmes are an important part of this, providing a learning structure and valuable work experience that can help nurture skills and foster future business leaders, helping the country to not only recover but prosper in the years ahead.