To get Britain’s buses moving – we need more flexible apprenticeships
Greater flexibility around apprenticeships can give employers the boost they need to fill vacancy rates and keep Britain on the move.
With a puff of dry ice and a blast of music, six figures in shades and leather gloves strode into Bolton’s Victoria Square. They were bus drivers – as you’ve never seen them before.
A campaign called ‘Be an Elite Bus Driver’ kicked off recently in Manchester, in an effort to recruit up to 300 apprentices and trainees to take on routes around the city as part of Andy Burnham’s newly franchised Bee Network public transport network.
It’s not easy to find bus drivers. The pandemic, Brexit and wage inflation in rival sectors has left vacancy rates running at nearly 7% across the industry according to the Confederation of Passenger Transport.
Hence the effort to reinvent the bus driver with a little fighter pilot-style panache – and use of language aimed to get a reaction (“our careers have no limits…except speed limits”).
The Go-Ahead Group, which is running the campaign in Manchester, has hit upon apprenticeships as a core part of the solution. Go-Ahead last year took on just over 1,000 apprentices a year across bus and rail – a figure likely to rise this year to 1,200.
Apprenticeships, allowing recruits to learn and gain qualifications while they earn, have broad appeal. They offer a promising route to a career for school leavers, career switchers and people returning to the workplace after a career break. They also offer learning opportunities mixing classroom study and work for those who feel university is unaffordable.
Employers such as Go-Ahead are keen to take on yet more. But the Apprenticeships Levy, although created in good faith, is structured in a way that piles on cost and complication.
So it’s encouraging to hear calls for reform growing in volume. Policy Exchange is the latest influential think-tank to publish proposals to change the levy to introduce more flexibility.
For the uninitiated, the way the present system works is that employers with an annual payroll over more than £3 million pay a sum equivalent to 0.5% of their wage bill as a levy. The company can then claim this money back, topped up by the Government, to fund apprenticeships.
The problem is that rules surrounding these apprenticeships are very prescriptive – which means smaller businesses, in particular, struggle to create a structure that allows them to access the funding they’ve paid in.
Policy Exchange suggests turning the levy into an Apprenticeship and Skills Levy, with 25% available to spend on training courses that could be shorter, more flexible training – such as, say, IT training, financial awareness or project management courses.
The think-tank also proposes scrapping the Apprenticeship Minimum Wage of £5.28 for younger people and requiring pay at the mainstream minimum wage standard – which, as an employer, Go-Ahead would support (bus driver apprentices are all paid above at or above the national living wage).
Policy Exchange’s proposals come hot on the heels of recommendations by a Council of Skills Advisors set up by the Labour Party which came to a similar conclusion – that the apprenticeship levy is outdated and that it needs to be replaced by a much less rigid scheme.
At Go-Ahead, apprentices have been transformational. Apprentice bus drivers stay with the business longer, get more commendations from passengers and have 50% fewer road accidents than those who join through other means.
And they have added diversity to the business. Since apprenticeships were introduced, the proportion of female and ethnic minority drivers has sharply increased. And a dedicated apprenticeship academy at Go-Ahead London has developed procedures to ensure training is accessible for neurodiverse candidates, such as those with autism and dyslexia.
In our recruitment advertising, some may smile at drawing a comparison between a bus driver’s typical day and that of a Tornado or Typhoon pilot. But driving a bus is a skilled job which requires concentration, congeniality, quick wittedness and numeracy. Manouevring a 10-ton bus around narrow, congested streets isn’t straightforward.
We want to take on more apprentice drivers. Unlocking a little bit of flexibility in red tape would allow us to do so. That would be a win all round in keeping Britain moving.
Amy Moore is Head of Apprenticeships and Graduates at The Go-Ahead Group, one of Britain’s largest bus and rail operators
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