14.06.20 Steve Nash

IMI fights for apprenticeships during COVID crisis

Liveryman Steve Nash, CEO of the Institute of the Motor Industry, tells Coachlines how his organisation is working to find solutions for apprentices and their employers and highlighting their plight at the highest levels.

Established in 1920, the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) is the professional association for individuals working in all areas and sub-sectors of the automotive industry. We are also the industry’s biggest and only dedicated awarding organisation.

Apprenticeships are a time-honoured entry route into automotive, hence our close involvement with the reforms that were initiated under the coalition government and which have been a central pillar of the skills policies of successive Conservative administrations.

The reforms were far-reaching, employer-led and aimed at producing work-ready candidates across a far broader range of occupations than had previously been the case. The aim was to provide a genuine alternative to higher education for young people looking to gain occupational skills and avoid student debt, whilst gaining direct entry to employment in the vast majority of cases.

So far, so good.

In practical terms the transition from the old apprenticeship frameworks to the new apprenticeship standards has been far from plain sailing. The introduction of the apprentice levy for employers with a payroll of £3m and above, together with the greater engagement required from employers in the process of the apprenticeship, initially saw apprentice numbers decline from the 2m+ achieved under the coalition; falling well short of the government’s pledge to achieve 3m apprenticeships by next year.

However, during the course of last year we were seeing some encouraging progress, with apprentice recruitment – especially from the large, levy paying employers – starting to return to the previous high levels achieved at the peak of the old framework system. Furthermore, we saw employers broadly engaging with apprenticeships in areas of their business where they had not previously done so.

The IMI is an authorised End Point Assessment Organisation (EPAO) for no less than 20 of the new apprenticeship standards, which cover the traditional technical bases such as light vehicle technician, heavy vehicle technician, etc. But also now includes such specialisms as sales, management & supervision, automotive finance specialist and many others. So employers in our sector had begun to embrace the new apprenticeship programmes and use them across their businesses, often in place of existing training programmes, whilst making constructive use of their levy funds.

Automotive has been facing a number of headwinds – not least the transition to new technologies (ACES: Autonomous, Connected, Electrification, Shared) and ever more challenging environmental standards. As a result many larger employers were already looking to scale back their apprentice recruitment for 2020. Then COVID-19 happened.

Research conducted by the IMI with the largest automotive retail employers revealed that, post lockdown, 26% were no longer planning to employ any apprentices in 2020, and a further 40% were reviewing their plans with a view to significantly reducing or possibly abandoning apprentice recruitment this year. Only 9% said their apprentice recruitment plans remained unchanged.

Representing the views of the employers, I have written to Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Apprenticeships & Skills, Gillian Keegan, requesting a cessation of the clawback of unused levy funds from employers for up to two years. The HR directors of these large employers feel that this would significantly help to support the employment of apprentices in circumstances where no such employment is currently planned, given that the accrued levy funds could only be used for that purpose.

I await a response from the Minister and hope that the suggested solution will be considered as part of the Prime Minister’s announced “apprenticeship guarantee”, the detail of which is yet to be defined but is expected to be announced in early July.

As for existing apprentices and students, just like GCSE and A Level students, many were due to complete their programmes this summer. We at the IMI have been working very closely with the four different regulatory bodies across the UK to put in place solutions which enable us to do as much as we possibly can remotely to help candidates complete their programmes as planned. This has seen us remotely qualify the first automotive finance apprentices, with more of the non-technical candidates expected to be assessed in a similar way.

There are some limitations as to what can be done for technical candidates, where practical assessments are required. However, we have been able to help those students to complete all other aspects of their programme and expect to be able to begin undertaking appropriately socially-distanced practical assessments shortly, as college facilities begin a staged return from lockdown.

Remote technologies have enabled us to maintain engagement with apprentices who are part way through their programmes, many of whom are currently furloughed on the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), providing them with online learning opportunities to continue their studies.

As with the economy in general, much will need to be done by government to stimulate re-engagement with apprenticeships as businesses endeavour to return to normal trading. Especially when the lifeline provided by the CJRS is reduced and ultimately removed, inevitably leading to redundancies which, sadly, will be likely to include many apprentices.

As the automotive industry’s professional association, we at the IMI are putting in place support measures to help apprentices and others who may find themselves out of work, aimed at helping them to seek and secure alternative employment. However, ultimately, to avoid what could otherwise be a massive setback in their apprentice reforms, we rely on appropriate support measures from the government and eagerly await the detail of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘apprenticeship guarantee’.

Liveryman Steve Nash, Chief Executive, IMI.