What apprenticeships are and how to use them

Find out how apprenticeships can support with attraction, development and retention in your organisation.

19 May 2021

In recent years the government has reformed the way apprenticeships are delivered and funded in England. As part of these reforms apprenticeships are more robust, better structured, and independently assessed to ensure apprentices gain the skills that employers need for their workforce.

There is a wide range of apprenticeships now available, including higher and degree level apprenticeships. Not only can they support with addressing skills shortages, but they are an excellent means of attracting new talent, developing and upskilling existing staff, and retaining the workforce within the NHS.

What is an apprenticeship?

The government defines apprenticeships as a job with training. They incorporate skills development, technical knowledge and practical experience through a work-based training programme. Apprenticeships are available to anyone over the age of 16 and enable learners to demonstrate competencies while gaining a recognised qualification. Individuals can undertake an apprenticeship at any level (this could be higher, equal or lower to a qualification they already hold), if it allows them to acquire substantive new skills.

Employment is a fundamental part of an apprenticeship and an apprentice must be employed in a job role with a productive purpose. In addition, the minimum duration for an apprenticeship is 12 months and the apprentice must spend at least 20 per cent of their time on off-the-job training (for some roles such as nursing, the requirement may be more). Apprentices must be paid for time spent training or studying for the relevant qualification, whether this is while at work, attending college or a training organisation.

What is the apprenticeship levy?

The apprenticeship levy was introduced in April 2017 and is paid by all employers who have an annual pay bill of £3 million or more. The rate of the levy is set at 0.5 per cent of the total pay bill and is paid to HMRC through the PAYE process. Those with a pay bill of less than £3 million don’t pay the levy and use different arrangements to pay for apprenticeship training.

Levy-paying employers set up an online account to access levy funds which are paid in each month. The levy funds are used to pay for apprenticeship training costs, but not employment costs. Any funds that are not used expire 24 months after they enter the account. To help minimise the risk of funds expiring, the funding works on a first-in, first-out basis, with payments taken from those funds that entered the account first.

In order to prevent levy funds being left unused, organisations can transfer up to 25 per cent of their contributions to another organisation for them to use. 

Additional funding and access to work

Funding of £1,000 is available for employers to support 16-18-year olds into employment as these apprentices can require more supervision and pastoral care.

There is also additional funding support of £1,000 available for employers who employ apprentices aged 19-24, who have previously been in care or who have a local authority education, health and care plan and may need extra support. 

Access to Work is a government scheme available to all disabled members of staff, or staff with learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD), including apprentices. It provides extra support to ensure that disabled people or those with LDD are not substantially disadvantaged in the workplace. Support might be in the form of specialist equipment, adaptions, support worker services, or help getting to and from work. Access to Work is available to those working as little as one hour per week. While individuals should apply for Access to Work themselves, it would be useful to signpost employees to the application and offer support. You can find out more about the scheme on the Access to Work web pages.

Building apprenticeships into the workforce strategy

Apprenticeship qualifications or standards range from levels 2-7. This is the equivalent of GCSE level up to master’s degree level. Apprenticeships are also available in a range of subjects and can develop individuals in many occupational competencies. These include but are not limited to, clinical apprenticeships such as nursing, advanced clinical practice, and radiography, and non-clinical apprenticeships such as senior leadership, clinical coding and facilities management.

Consider the following questions when developing your workforce plans.

  • How can a scaled-up apprenticeship offer act as an enabler of your workforce strategy?
  • How can apprenticeships enable you to meet key actions from the NHS People Plan, Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) and the Workforce Disability Equality Standard (WDES)?
  • How can apprenticeships enable you to be more representative of the community you serve?
  • Does your current apprenticeship offer align to the skills/talent pipeline you will need over the next five years?
  • How can the introduction/use of apprenticeships tackle your key workforce challenges?

The HASO website also shows the range of apprenticeships you could include as part of your workforce strategy.

There are a number of ways that apprenticeships can benefit your organisation

  • Apprenticeship pathways are now being developed to provide higher-level technical skills and provide a great option for retaining the existing workforce and, building talent pipelines. For example, Cambridge University Hospitals has created a pathway from traineeship to registered nurse, which has enabled the trust to retain talent. University Hospitals Southampton on how they've retained 100 per cent of apprentices on their nursing programme. The HASO website also shares a wide array of potential pathways that you could develop in your organisation.

  • Retaining the skills and experience of existing employers is vital if employers are to avoid future skills shortages. Many employers are now offering apprenticeships at all levels to existing staff across a wide range of roles and disciplines as part of their strategy. Find out how trusts have used AHP apprenticeships.

  • When thinking about how they can redesign and shape the workforce in order to respond to, and anticipate service needs, many employers are ensuring that apprenticeships form a key part of their workforce supply strategy. Chesterfield Royal Hospital introduced band 4 roles by using apprenticeships to build a team around the patient based on what skills and activities they needed from their team.

  • National dropout rates for many university courses tend to be relatively high, particularly within the first six months. University Hospitals Southampton on how they've retained 100 per cent of apprentices on their nursing programme. Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust also introduced a nursing apprenticeship programme as part of their ‘grow your own’ approach and reported 100 per cent retention after six months. The scheme is referenced in the King’s Fund report, The courage of compassion: Supporting nurses and midwives to deliver high-quality care.

  • Apprenticeships present a genuine alternative to full-time college or university study to anyone aged 16 and over. They can widen access to employment to all areas of your local community. For example the nurse degree apprenticeship, which leads to the same qualification as the traditional route, can be offered to new or existing staff. Cambridge University Hospitals Trust has used this approach to strengthen its nursing supply.

  • Employers can open doors for the existing and future nursing workforce in their local community by building a nursing partnership with their providers. The Open University (OU) has worked with Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust to develop the local nursing workforce through the registered nurse degree apprenticeship and nursing associate higher apprenticeship, through the use of the innovative Nursing Academy. This allows apprentices to earn while they learn and the OU can give flexibility as a distance learning provider.

  • Inclusive recruitment to better reflect the community you serve is a key message of the NHS People Plan and inclusive apprenticeship recruitment can also lead to better retention rates and improved workforce supply. The benefits of establishing and maintaining a diverse and representative workforce are well understood. Teams are more innovative and creative. It is also found that patients have better experiences of care when the workforce mirrors the patient population.

    Taking positive action during the recruitment process can enable you to diversify your workforce, and deliver against actions in the NHS People Plan, Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) and the Workforce Disability Equality Standard (WDES).

    Positive action can support employers under the Equality Act 2010 to recruit and promote people from under-represented groups to help them overcome disadvantages in competing with other applicants. This positive action in recruitment guide from (pdf) outlines all of the steps throughout the recruitment process where positive action can be taken, from shortlisting through to interview, and provides examples of tie-break scenarios. Your recruitment team can also provide you with data throughout the recruitment process on the protected characteristics of applicants, to support you with taking positive action during the process or to understand where barriers in the process may occur.

    Ensure that your recruitment processes are accessible to all. Ask whether reasonable adjustments are required and if so provide them. This may be including hearing loops, accessible software for any computer-based activity, a wheelchair accessible space for all activities, papers in large print and colour filters available, or access to a computer for any written task for those who struggle with paper-based activity.

    When Royal Berkshire Trust identified a gap in Ethnic minority group senior leaders at the trust they specifically invited and encouraged staff from Ethnic minority backgrounds to take up the offer of a senior leadership apprenticeship.

  • A costing tool has been developed to help work out the potential cost to your organisation of delivering apprenticeships and shows a breakdown of the annual salary costs and levy spend, enabling you to calculate a return on the investment made. The costing tool is part of the Apprenticeship Toolkit found on the HASO website.