Flexi-job apprenticeships - more flexibility for employers
06 April 2021
The recent government announcement of flexi-job apprenticeships will help businesses to share apprentices and brings the promise of greater flexibility.
Apprenticeships allow businesses to develop a motivated, skilled and qualified workforce. However, under the existing statutory apprenticeship regime, an apprenticeship must last for a minimum of 12 months. This poses particular challenges in industries where short-term, project-based working arrangements are the norm, such as in the creative and construction sectors. The government’s white paper on Skills for Jobs published in January this year recognised that the varied and flexible employment patterns in these industries has meant that apprentices and employers are unable to commit to the minimum 12 month apprenticeship duration.
One solution is the use of an Apprenticeship Training Agency (ATA), which is responsible for employing and paying apprentices and providing them to multiple end user businesses in exchange for a fee. Businesses can club together to pay that fee and share responsibility for an apprentice’s on-site training during their apprenticeship, making up the full 12 months. A list of approved ATA providers can be found here.
The government’s latest flexi-job apprenticeship proposal builds on the agency model.
What is proposed?
The government wants apprenticeships to become “portable” so that “they can be taken from company to company”. The Chancellor announced in the Spring 2021 Budget a £7 million fund to operate a new flexi-job apprenticeship programme. From July 2021, organisations will be able to bid for money from the fund to create new agencies, which will employ apprentices and allocate them to multiple employers. The first flexi-job apprenticeships are expected to commence in January 2022.
Will it make things easier?
The flexi-job apprenticeship model is not dissimilar from the ATA model, but there is a renewed vigour backed up by funding to encourage organisations to establish themselves as agencies. This should promote flexibility for apprentices to move between work placements and complete their training; and it may be the missing piece for some industries, which to date have struggled to take full advantage of apprenticeships.
However, organisations applying to become an agency will take on sizeable responsibility and should consider carefully whether they are the right candidate for that new function. Any new agency will need strong relationships and contacts within the industry so it can arrange multiple placements. It will need to understand the needs of that industry, and how long projects tend to last, to determine the number of end user businesses that should be involved to meet the 12 month minimum requirement for an apprenticeship.
The agency will be acting as an employment business (EB) and will therefore need to comply with the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations 2003 (Conduct Regs) and Agency Workers Regulations 2010 (AWR). These are fairly onerous sets of rules for EBs.
Key obligations on EBs under the Conduct Regs include giving the individual a key information document (about payment and deductions) and key terms and conditions, including salary and holiday entitlement; obtaining confirmation that the individual has the necessary abilities for the role offered by the end user business (presumably a low threshold for an apprentice); and not charging the individual for their placement with a business (rather, charging the business).
Under the AWR, individuals become entitled to the same rights after 12 weeks of a placement as a comparable directly hired employee of the end user business, including pay and other basic working conditions such as annual leave and rest breaks. An EB needs information from the end user business to discharge that obligation. The end user business must also ensure individuals have the same access to collective facilities as other directly hired employees from day one.
Organisations taking on the agency role through the new government funding will want a set of terms to give end user businesses. Negotiating these terms can take time and may slow down the process, which would be particularly unattractive where multiple end user businesses are involved. In time, an industry-standard set of terms may be preferable.
There will always be some red tape, but flexi-job apprenticeships, if they live up to their name, will make taking on an apprentice easier and cheaper for many businesses. We expect a government consultation on the proposals with the hope of future guidance.