Sector placed to benefit from apprenticeship levy

Most horticulture businesses are in a position to benefit from the apprenticeship levy now that long-awaited details have been released by new apprenticeship minister Robert Halfon.

Image: Wyevale Garden Centres
Image: Wyevale Garden Centres

The levy, which has been criticised by some employers and employer groups as another payroll tax and a good idea too hastily put-together, will come into force from 6 April 2017 and will effect employers with an annual wage bill of £3m or more, subject to a £15,000 allowance, at a rate of 0.5 per cent.

The levy value, plus a 10 per cent top-up that has been pledged by the Government, can be accessed by English employers in the form of training credits to use for apprentices only, plus some costs, but not wages. Different devolved schemes exist in the rest of the UK.

However, non levy-payers - most employers in the horticulture sector - can also get training credits in the newly outlined co-funding model. When they put in 10 per cent of the cost, the Government will add 90 per cent.

This is "the really important news", said consultant Ros Burnley, who has been working with the landscape and horticulture trailblazer apprenticeship standards working group. "Currently it is £1 from employers to £2 from Government, but 10/90 is much more favourable than the previous funding rate. We need everybody to get on that and say they want it," she said.

The co-funding model also benefits companies with more apprentices than training credits, such as large grounds maintenance contractors. Ground Control training manager Neil Huck said: "It's great. It gives us an incentive for employers to take on apprentices. We've suffered a lot from the skills shortage and we need people in our industry. It's one of the ways of encouraging employers to take it up."

Huck welcomed the move to make it easier for companies to become training providers in their own right and extra funding announced by Halfon to encourage employers to recruit 16- to 18-year-olds and those who have been in care.

British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward, however, told Horticulture Week he is concerned that not many growers could take advantage. "On the face of it, it's definitely the right thing to be doing. But running an apprenticeship is quite a demanding activity. Not every business is going to be able to take advantage," he warned.

"It's fine when you've got a big HR department, but when you're out there looking at your strawberries because you've got an order to fill it's not foremost in your mind."

The new model links into the Government's existing trailblazer apprenticeship model - older forms of apprenticeships will not get as much funding, which is good news for horticulture because it has been working on the horticulture and landscape, arboriculture and forestry trailblazers, all nearing completion.

"The sector is in a good position to benefit," said Huck. "We've been writing the standards. We've been asking for employers to be engaged and we've had quite a few."

Outside of horticulture, the CBI continues to call for both a "complete rethink" and a delay in order to give employers more time to prepare. But Huck said a delay would damage horticulture. "The skills shortage is starting to cause a lot of problems," he pointed out. "We need to get skilled people and the only way I can see that happening is growing our own."

Burnley added: "All I can see is the employers in our sector taking it on the nose and working it through, and doing what they need to do.

There has been a lot of planning going on behind the scenes."

One concern is the short time frame for the Government consultation, which runs for three weeks until 5 September during the holiday season. Employers are nevertheless urged to contribute.

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