Some of the region’s biggest employers have been urged to take advantage of the apprenticeship levy, which comes into force in later this year.
As from April this year, the way the government funds apprenticeships will change – some employers will be required to contribute to the apprenticeship levy, while there will also be changes to the funding for apprenticeship for all employers.
Representatives from more than 40 local businesses – including Hitachi Rail Europe, Gestamp Tallent, 3M, GSK, Nifco and Ebac – attended a specialist employer event focusing on the levy at South West Durham Training (SWDT) on Aycliffe Business Park.
County Durham Engineering and Manufacturing Network director of operations Ben Gilhespy, who spoke at the seminar, warned attendees that the so-called skills gap is actually worse than how it’s currently perceived.
“We keep hearing people talk about a skills gap for our 16-24-year-olds, but it’s not actually true – it stretches right throughout our businesses,” said Gilhespy.
“One of the key areas we’re looking at for particularly SMEs in the county is succession planning, which is really important.
“People at the top can’t move on without having people beneath them with the necessary skills to move up.
“We’re producing hair dresser after hair dresser because we think we need them, but we need the business community to interact with our training providers so our educational establishments understand what the needs are out there.
“We need to use the levy to be able to turn around the staff we have and achieve a quality of person we can utilise in businesses.”
Former Ebac managing director Pamela Petty, who’s now chair of the Bishop Auckland College board and a director of Aycliffe Business Park Community, also spoke at the event.
Petty, who was an apprentice herself, said: “I understand the strain businesses are under, but I’m a massive believer in the apprenticeship model – on the job experience with off the job learning
“Absolutely everyone has the ability to learn and the ability to make a difference. They’re good for both the apprentices and employers – it’s a win-win situation for me.
“One of the good things about the levy is that there’s actually more funding available in the new system for us older people, and it’s not just about 16-year-olds any more.
“There are opportunities for people within companies now who have a really good attitude and an understanding of the business to upskill themselves, and employers can only benefit from that.
“It’s really important we not only take on the commitment of taking on apprentices, but to also work with them and give them the time to learn.”
SWDT chief executive Lee Childs sees the changes as an opportunity for businesses to upskill their existing staff.
Childs, an engineer from Shildon who served his time with SWDT 16 years ago and who took over as chief executive in October 2015, said: “The apprenticeship reforms might seem quite daunting to employers, there are a lot of changes that come into force from April this year. They’ll have to handle a digital account and manage their levy pot, for example.
“But rather than being afraid of it, businesses must embrace it, and we actually see the changes as an opportunity.
“The one good thing from these reforms is that they will enable us to do more for local employers. They open up new opportunities for existing workforce development, whether that’s through apprenticeships or other training programmes.
“We want to help employers through the reforms, talk through the levy and how the changes will affect businesses, both levy payers and non-levy payers.”
SWDT last year welcomed new apprentices from Hitachi Rail Europe and 3M in Aycliffe, Darlington-based Cummins, Stockton-based car parts maker Nifco and Barnard Castle-based pharmaceuticals giant GSK.
All are on engineering or manufacturing programmes with bespoke elements required by their employer, including hydraulics, pneumatics, electrical, fabrication and welding.
SWDT now has more than 300 learners on the books across all years and a number of new customers.
Clients include other Aycliffe firms such as Husqvarna, Senstronics and Ebac, while SWDT also provides apprentices for Darlington firm Mech Tool Engineering and Spennymoor’s Thorn Lighting.
SWDT, a subsidiary of Bishop Auckland College which employs 27 staff, celebrates its 50th year later this year.