The Department for Economy has put out an important consultation (Apprenticeship Levy consultation) related to how we develop a skilled workforce. It absolutely points in the right direction in proposing a framework for more investment in training through progressive apprenticeships.
This is exactly the sort of thing that we need in Northern Ireland if we are to build solid foundations for the productivity and competitiveness we need as an economy. We have just one, significant, change to propose.
Proposals are that apprenticeships should start at level three and be for at least two years. We support the idea of level three and above – but we have one major amendment to put forward to the Belfast government: we need one-year, level two apprenticeships also.
Reasons for our position include fairness and pragmatism. To exclude level two would be to exclude the overwhelming majority of people in road haulage and logistics – a sector that is vital to the whole economy.
Let’s look at what has been happening elsewhere in the industry. In England, an industry group, supported by the RHA, has designed one-year Trailblazer apprenticeships for lorry driving, traffic office staff and warehouse operatives. The HGV apprenticeship is especially important and attracts substantial government funding.
I declare an RHA interest here. The chairman of the logistics sector Trailblazer group, Colin Snape, has subsequently joined the RHA as deputy policy director. He was a highly innovative HR manager at Nagel Langdons, a large and well-respected logistics operator specialising in temperature-controlled distribution and it was during the development of the apprenticeship and dealing with government that he got to know the RHA.
Colin is now taking on a key role in ensuring the Trailblazer apprenticeship a success, by bringing its benefits alive to hauliers of all sizes in England – not just large fleets but small hauliers, right down to owner-drivers who may want to give a son or daughter a really good start in the business. (He is doing that in addition to his other Policy responsibilities, related to employment and business policy.)
To be clear, we are talking here about transformation in the way that employers in the industry recruit and train new recruits – and in some cases, existing drivers. This is no tinkering at the edges, or marginal adding of value.
What are the gains? For the employer, a greater stake in his employee, a more skilled individual, better able to drive his truck the right way in terms of economy and safety of himself and others, better able to deal with colleagues and customers and better acquainted the rules he has to follow.
For the individual driver, deeper and more thorough training, and the acquisition of skills well beyond the bare minimum needed to get a licence to drive; and the acquisition of transferrable skills that will be of long-term benefit to him, whether he stays in the industry or follows a career path elsewhere. Read the short guide to the lorry driver apprenticeship and these attributes are as clear as the Mourne Mountains on a fine spring morning.
For Northern Ireland’s economy – stitch together what apprenticeships bring firms and individuals and you have a more productive and competitive industry, operating more safely and with a workforce that is more adaptable.
There are more prosaic imperatives for apprenticeships. The industry has landed itself with a fast-impending driver crisis due to many years of under-investment in training. We have become heavily dependent on drivers from Eastern Europe who are already starting to drift home as sterling falls in value and their net earnings reduce. Post-Brexit, we are likely to be in an entirely new era in terms of recruitment from abroad.
Firms of all sizes are unlikely to invest in new driver training to the extent that is needed – and certainly are unlikely to make the same investment in quality, without an apprenticeship.
It gets worse. Without a level two lorry driver apprenticeship, larger haulage firms will end up paying the apprenticeship levy from April 2017 with no prospect of getting it back – unlike their competitors in England and elsewhere in the UK. And SME and smaller firms will be denied the funding they so desperately need.
The Department for Economy is definitely on the right track overall – but the road haulage industry wants to join them on the journey. That is the message I and my colleagues are putting forward on behalf of RHA members and the industry in Northern Ireland as a whole.