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Co-op chief calls for apprenticeship reforms

Co-op CEO Steve Murrells says the company could offer hundreds more apprenticeships, particularly in areas of the UK hardest hit by the pandemic, if the government makes “simple changes” to the apprenticeship scheme.

“Currently, we offer 1,200 apprenticeships across the Co-op. These colleagues are based across our group, from our support centre in Manchester right through to the frontline in UK high streets, in our food stores and funeral homes. I’ve seen how their energy and new ways of thinking helps us to achieve a better way of doing business,” Murrells says.

“As the pandemic continues and need for flexibility increases, the levy is holding employers back, of all sizes, from being able to increase the number of apprenticeships they can create at this critical time.”

New research

His comments come as the Co-op, one of the world’s largest consumer co-operatives, unveils a new report commissioned by the group from the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research, which examines the many differences between apprenticeships across sectors and employers, despite the standardised routes to government funding.

The report, which includes interviews with business leaders, the British Retail Consortium and the National Association of Funeral Directors, was discussed at a round-table on November 26 attended by Murrells and representatives from the Department for Education, National Apprenticeship Service, National Society of Apprentices and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Murrells says he is keen to work with the government to help address how the national apprenticeship programme, including the roundly criticised Apprenticeship Levy, can better accommodate different business and individual needs.

Businesses with an annual wage bill of more than £3 million are currently required to contribute to the levy, with the opportunity to utilise the fund to train their apprentices. The levy covers direct training and assessment for each apprentice, but not all aspects, such as the mandated 20% off-the-job training.

Call for greater funding flexibility

Peter Dickinson, Senior Research Fellow at Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research says: “Of those we spoke to, there is widespread need for apprenticeships to evolve, so that more opportunities can be delivered. The levy doesn’t currently cover the training some young people need just to qualify for an apprenticeship, or the additional training that can futureproof a young person’s career, like key digital skills, despite the fact this training is becoming increasingly important. As employers cover these costs, the number of apprentices they can afford reduces.

“Also, we identified that small and medium enterprises are taking on fewer apprentices. It was originally 50% in 2018, but this dropped to 43% last year. There needs to be some sort of levelling, so that all businesses of any size can create important opportunities for young people.”

Murrells adds that the study shows how a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work.

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