Apprenticeship levy: One year on, what benefits do landscape and parks managers see from the scheme?

The apprenticeship levy was lauded by politicians as the solution to the skills crisis and the UK's poor productivity when it launched a year ago. Has it made a difference for amenity horticulture?

Idverde CEO Doug Graham with the first apprentices to join the Performance Campus. Image: idverde
Idverde CEO Doug Graham with the first apprentices to join the Performance Campus. Image: idverde

The Government’s apprenticeships reform and introduction of the levy led to a fundamental change to the financing model with implications on how employers train their staff and interact with training providers. The levy aims to fund three million new apprenticeships in England by 2020.

It is payable by all large UK employers, who must contribute a percentage of their annual payroll. The money is then used to pay for new apprenticeships (see box). BALI technical director Neil Huck is impressed with the levy but says "it's not quite there yet".

He is not alone. Some employers have complained that the levy is too complicated, others that a delay in certifying training programmes has dampened interest. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development last year found only 20% of employers that paid the levy supported it.

Huck is more upbeat: "I'm a firm believer this is good and will only get better. It is developed by our industry for our industry, not academia, and figures from the Institute for Apprentices show in its first year 350-plus apprentices are in horticulture with about the same amount for arboriculture."

Huck, also national training manager for Ground Control, is putting 25 apprentices through level-two apprenticeships while level-three training for managers and supervisors is awaiting approval. The levy, he believes, will go some way — about 70% — to solving the sector's skills shortage.

"But some things need more work and one of the most pressing concerns is the mixed take-up by colleges and other training providers," he adds. "There have been so many schemes in recent years that while we have shining examples like Capel Manor, many other providers have become a bit cynical."

While he appreciates their reluctance, Huck urges colleges to stop "playing wait-and-see" and he is to host training-provider events such as one at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, in May. His company signed up to plug a skills gap that threatens to leave some firms "unable to deliver on their contract wins".

Flexibility essential

Like Huck, idverde chief executive Doug Graham agrees in the "principle" of investing in training and development via the apprenticeship levy. But flexibility is a must to enable employers to determine the right training that contributes best to the success of their organisations.

"The levy has enabled us to adapt our approach for how we structure our training," he says. "We want to take the right steps to make idverde a great place to work, and the levy has a definite place in developing our people so they’re the best in the business. For this reason it benefits business."

Last month (February), idverde launched its Performance Campus at High Elms Country Park in Bromley. This will offer learning and development opportunities for all staff at any stage of their career — apprentices, supervisors, managers and leaders.

Graham says: "The levy has helped us focus on how to plan our training and development offering for the Performance Campus and what really matters. We designed a curriculum to not only meet the requirements of the new standard but ensure it is tailored to our business values and needs."

Apprentices employed

City of London Corporation has employed apprentices pre and post levy, including gardeners across several green spaces and tree surgeons at Hampstead Heath. Open spaces business manager Gerry Kiefer has no doubt the levy has made a demonstrable and positive difference.

"We have always supported apprenticeships," he explains. "But the levy has meant we have increased the number at the City Corporation. We have now achieved our aim of employing 100 apprentices in a single year across the whole organisation, supported by the apprenticeship levy."

Unlike some doubting Thomases across sectors, Kiefer fully supports the apprenticeship levy and the Government’s apprenticeship target. To help businesses make the most of the levy, City of London Corporation has launched a webinar series on how apprenticeships work.

"We will use the momentum of the levy to continue working to improve uptake across London and give new career pathways," he says. "Apprenticeships are a great way to start to a career in horticulture and along with the levy they empower people to discover new ways into employment."


What is the levy and who pays?

  • The apprenticeship levy is part of the Government’s plan to increase the quantity and quality of apprenticeships. The levy is a new tax that aims to fund three million new apprenticeships in England by 2020.
  • All UK employers with a total staff wage bill of more than £3m a year are required to pay 0.5% of their annual payroll into the levy and these funds will be used to pay for new apprenticeships.
  • Conceived by the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI), it was launched by the Department for Education in April 2017 and is run under the auspices of the Institute for Apprentices.
  • One challenge for the horticulture sector is a lack of industry-specific technical qualifications, including apprenticeships, for the specialist, much-needed roles within the industry. The aim is to develop bespoke programmes that reflect essential skills for roles such as application of pesticides and chainsaw operation, to ensure that apprenticeships deliver the right training for the end role.

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