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Webinar recap: How to manage employer engagement in the delivery of apprenticeships

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Tony Allen (CEO of Allen Apprenticeships and Skills), and Ben Drain (Apprenticeships Operations and Quality Director at Pareto Law) presented a webinar for more than 150 apprenticeship providers to explore the topic of effective employer engagement. 

With many years of experience in apprenticeships delivery, Tony Allen and Ben Drain have deep insights into where successful providers excel in the services they provide and the growth of their organisations. In this webinar, they focused on one key component – providers’ approaches to employer engagement.

Employer engagement as a lifeblood for your organisation

Before sharing their five steps to effective employer engagement, Allen explained why it is so important. “It’s your lifeblood – employers can be tremendously loyal, even when things go a bit wrong, as long as you deliver what they really want. They are looking for efficiencies in how they work with you; often wanting to reduce the number of suppliers that they work with. The Government sees employers as key to most funded programmes such as apprenticeships, and traineeships, with the relationship with employers embedded in the Ofsted framework and in ESFA funding rules. You need to decide what you want from the engagement – is it one-off transaction or a long-term strategic partnership? Whichever route you go down, it will cost you money, so why not develop a really long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.”

Drain added, “No matter what the size of employer, don’t underestimate their reach. Poor communication is a common sticking point that can derail a partnership. Monthly/bi-monthly catch ups, which are about more than just how the apprenticeships are progressing, are crucial.”

Are training providers good at employer engagement?

Our speakers agree that, while they may think they prioritise employers and say all the right things, training providers for the most part are not that great at building these long-term relationships. Part of the problem, according to Allen, is the shift towards a focus on money – be it the financial incentives or the pressure to spend the Levy.

When the conversation is led by and focused on benefits to the business, says Drain, it’s a different story. “We’ve seen the Government produce incentives to generate more apprenticeships during covid and as a result, many providers have become reliant on that being their sales pitch. But when we look at a provider like Pareto – the approach is that while incentives are nice, they are not the driving force behind the ‘why’. That message is much more compelling – employee retention from the loyalty of apprentices, and the value of the training that employers would typically have to do themselves or pay for commercially. Financial employer incentive is a transactional relationship.”

Here are five steps providers can take to building that employer engagement.

Step 1: Look at employers as your customers and strategic partners

Allen suggests making employers a priority within your business plan and strategy. “Consider where you are going to target those employers and relationships. Is it around Levy employers – or smaller employers too? Realistically, many of the larger ones are established and could be harder to break into as a result. Think about sectors – are you a provider that goes for lots of different sectors, or are you a provider that is more niche and really builds and develops and expertise on that? Employers will welcome someone who has credibility in their sector and can demonstrate their knowledge in training and developing an apprentice in a particular role. Be clear about your offer. Make it more strategic, make it longer term. Develop thoughts and ideas that will help you to have a relationship with that employer for the long term. ‘Let me tell you about why I think apprenticeships are the right solution for your skills challenges.’”

Drain builds on this idea of partnership. “It’s massively important to approach every employer with an answer to why apprenticeships would benefit their business – what value does it add? If you start to understand the business’s strategy and goals – now and the next 6, 12, 18 months, you can start to build a plan with them around recruitment and future workforce planning.”

Step 2: Promote a service culture

The key here, according to Allen, is to “make sure your staff understand the needs of each of their employers, as individual organisations and as a collective – not just front line/employer facing colleagues. All staff need to know what to do when an employer makes contact so they can be responsive and consistent. It’s all basic customer service principles, but sadly so many providers don’t respond.

Drain recently experienced this for himself when doing some outreach to providers to support Pareto in specific sectors. “Only one out of five bothered to come back to me. If that’s the service customers are getting, no wonder we’re losing employers and they say apprenticeships are not for me. The problem is that they will lose faith in apprenticeships as a whole. If providers did an employer survey, one thing I guarantee would emerge is the desire for improved communication.”

On the Government site, Find an Apprenticeship, employers can rate providers. If you’re not excellent on that rating – ask yourself why not and what can be done to fix that perception.

Step 3: Allocate resources

Of course, this level of responsiveness requires resources. Like any part of the business, if you want to do it seriously then you have to invest and put systems, people and processes in place. Have a dedicated level of staffing, equipment and support, including sales and marketing. Make sure staff are clear on what they need to do and that they have KPIs, not just for sales but for the admin team and others too so that you are able to measure your effectiveness in terms of employer engagement. It’s important not to be short sighted about the systems that will help you to do this. How you store and record the data that shows employer engagement and feedback can make a huge difference. Systems such as Aptem give you the opportunity to provide a streamlined system, where employers can log in, see what’s going on and have direct communication with your team. This can play a massive part in your success.”

 Step 4: Apply an employer focused approach

  • Know what the competition is doing. From next year*, look at their QAR data – if yours is better than theirs, include that in your sales pitch. Sell how good you are as a business – don’t be afraid to use that kind of data.
  • Be clear about what you can and can’t do. Be honest. Over delivering is better than over promising as there is a lot of frustration from employers who feel like they do not, in reality, experience all that was promised to them. If in reality it’s going to take 3-6 months to get a new programme up and running, involving new staff and new learning resources, be upfront. Quite often you can do more damage signing up to something you don’t deliver or that doesn’t really meet employer needs. Explain why your approach is different; they may think differently after. Otherwise they will lose faith rather than trusting your opinion and integrity. This is a common pitfall of ITPs and it turns out half the people who started a programme shouldn’t have been on it.
  • Think about what makes you different – what is your USP? This comes back to the previous point about customer service. How does that work in your business?
  • If you can provide additional services (such as commercial training), don’t be afraid to tell your employers. By starting with apprenticeships and Government-funded programmes – and doing them well, you may find that you are aware of and involved with other learning, skills and capability requirements that they have.
  • And to reiterate – make sure you embed all of this across the whole organisation. Make sure strategy isn’t just about signing them up.

Step 5: Focus on outcomes

“This is the last part of the employer engagement process”, Allen explains. “It’s not rocket science, but it’s amazing how many times I see this not happening. What are your goals and KPIs? Make sure you review them. Make sure you are clear about what it is you set out to do and how you are achieving that. Actively seek feedback – you should be actively surveying employers and learners. Things like focus groups are highly effective – have you thought about asking a group of employers to take part in an hour’s focus group? Get them to talk about their experiences of you as a provider – you will learn a colossal amount of information. It needs to be about continuous improvement. To what extent are we really delivering what employers want? Learning from past mistakes is a critical part of that.”

On the topic of incentivising staff, our speakers recommend treading carefully. Bonus schemes can be good; but they can be divisive and ineffective. You need to understand your staff, not everyone is motivated by money. Drain explains that he has always incentivised sales to hit target starts, but that part of that incentive also includes the retention of learners for six months on programme. “For me, that was a good balance of quantity with quality. My team is then focused on good learners who will stay on to the end of the programme; and the employer relationship and potential value from that relationship is enhanced.”

To listen to the full recording of the webinar, you can do so here.

*QAR data explained

QAR data is the annual data release from the ESFA which sets out, by provider, their respective apprenticeship achievement rates. Historically this data has been published, and available to all at the end of March each year.

Due to the impact of Covid on apprenticeship delivery and performance, the Government laid out the following plans for data publication:

  • March 2021 – no data published.

  • March 2022 – summary data only (not at provider level).

  • March 2023 – data published in original format, relating to the academic year August 2021, to July 2022.

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