When it comes to levelling up apprenticeships, the East of England has its work cut out. Despite being the UK`s 4th largest regional economy, at present the East sits at a mere 7th place (out of 9) on the league table of apprenticeships across English regions. 

This shortfall is certainly not due to a lack of effort. A number of big further education providers in the East – including West Suffolk College, City College Norwich, and the Colchester Institute – are in England`s top 30 for volume, and many local private training providers continue to be active. 

According to recent figures, the East has a comparatively large proportion of higher and degree apprentices – 35 per cent – with Anglia Ruskin University being one of the top ten providers nationally. Others, like Lincoln University and the University of East Anglia, are also expanding. This is great news, especially given a growing need for higher level skills in many key industries and sectors. 

On a close look at the data, however, it is also clear that there remains a mismatch between the fastest growing parts of the East`s economy (advanced engineering, manufacturing, agri-tech, digital & creative, energy & environment), and the apprenticeship subjects currently being prioritised. 

For example, there is an ample offering of courses in leadership, management, and administration in the East – while more technical subjects like Engineering, IT/Digital and Science, lag behind.

This mismatch is partly caused by the type of available courses on offer. Degree apprenticeships, which proliferate in the East, are undoubtedly a welcome addition to the educational landscape. Yet they are primarily designed to help older professionals already in well-paid jobs – and often fall short of helping school leavers get that precious first step onto the professional ladder. 

A better way to support younger people looking for quality educational alternatives to university would be to emphasise lower level apprenticeships instead – which can offer them in-roads into skills-shortage areas like construction, hospitality and logistics.

The Employer Skills Survey (DfE, 2019), conducted before the pandemic, found that the East of England had a higher proportion of vacancies requiring highly specialist skills (27 per cent) compared with the English average (25 per cent) – and the demand was particularly high in Greater Cambridge and Peterborough (29 per cent). Given the continuing impact of Brexit and Covid-19 on the UK labour market, these figures are likely only to rise. 

Yet despite these skill shortages, data shows that young people from disadvantaged areas are still not taking up apprenticeships in sufficient numbers. This problem is particularly acute in the East of England, which has the lowest proportion of apprentices from low-income households (4 per cent), compared to the North West’s 25 per cent and London’s 15 per cent. 

There are many reasons for this. For one thing, the East`s patchy transport infrastructure between (and within) local areas makes simply turning up for apprenticeships a real challenge for many young people. Apprenticeship pay is also often below minimum wage, making it an unattractive short-term option for students from low-income families (despite considerable long-term benefits). 

These problems are compounded by a continued overemphasis on Higher Education in the school sector, which tends to present the “traditional” route of going to university and getting a degree as the only viable option. This leaves many students unaware of the many potential benefits of taking the apprenticeship route – which could take them all the way from GCSE to degree level in most occupational areas without the need for student loans. 

Employers today often complain about the difficulties of finding and retaining workers with the skills they need to succeed. Many blame the education system for not delivering enough viable candidates into the labour market, and they have a point. But we simply cannot afford to wait for education reform (now under way) to improve the situation. 

While solving the skills shortage will be a mammoth task, there are things that employers could do to help things along. At present, the number of in-work training days provided by employers in England lags behind our international competitors (3.5 days per year), with the East of England being below even that (three days). 

If this gap were closed and all employees in the East received an additional half a day of training, this would equate to over 300,000 additional days of staff training per annum. This could go a long way towards addressing the skills shortage currently being felt by employers across the country. 

Businesses must be proactive in developing the skills of their existing workforces, whilst putting more time and resource into raising the profile of their industries. Apprenticeships could help them to do both effectively, if properly managed. 

Still, there is little doubt that employers need more support from the government to help them raise their skills game. The UK`s apprenticeship system is in dire need of an overhaul, and the current levy funding process is far too restrictive and bureaucratic to be workable in practice. 

Revamping apprenticeships in the UK will be no mean feat but there are reasons to be optimistic. After its launch in March 2022, the Eastern Powerhouse partnership (which I work with), has been gathering together key players from across the East of England in both education and business. 

The aim is to help identify major skills deficits in the region, find out what needs to be done to fix them, and then to implement cogent solutions which can help local skills better meet demand. 

By creating such a platform, the Eastern Powerhouse hopes to allow the region to press the national government for the resources it needs to better meet the skills challenge. Improved transport connectivity, better information and careers guidance services for young people and adults, greater investment in building up the capacity of colleges and universities to deliver world-class skills training – all will have to be fought for and won. 

Increasing the accessibility of apprenticeships for all parts of the region is also a must – as this would allow disadvantaged communities a direct route to the skills and experience they need to get ahead. 

From early discussions from Eastern Powerhouse members, two things have become apparent. First, most Easterners agree on the need for a step-change in the volume and range of apprenticeships available to learners. We should be prioritising skills shortage areas, and aiming to be near the top, not near the bottom, of the national league table. Second, there is a renewed willingness on all sides to work closely together to meet this challenge. 

When all is said and done, the real power of the Eastern Powerhouse is teamwork. If it can apply its promising format to apprenticeships, it could ensure that skills are no longer a barrier to success – but instead an engine of growth and productivity in the Eastern region, and by extension the wider country.

Andy Forbes is a former FE College Principal in Hertfordshire, London, and Bristol. He is now Head of Development at ResPublica and works closely with the Eastern Powerhouse.