Apprenticeships: part of the NHS workforce solution

18 July 2023


A priority for NHS trusts is investing in people and culture while grappling with labour shortages. Skills development within the workforce is key for any trust wanting to attract and retain high-quality staff. This means creating an environment where skills are invested in and where the trust is seen to provide support where needed.

The NHS People Plan highlights the need to foster a culture of inclusion and belonging, as well as action to grow the workforce, develop skills and work differently to deliver better patient care. Even before the pandemic, the sector was struggling with retention, staff stress, turnover and large numbers of vacancies across the health and care system.

While apprenticeships are not new or the only available initiative, they are one of the most effective tools available. Successful strategies use apprenticeships to recruit directly into new roles and support career development through appropriate training and development for existing staff.

NHS trusts could offer a broad range of apprenticeships, reflecting the nature of the specific trusts. The most common are apprenticeships within allied health professionals, business and administration, nursing Occupations, and leadership and management.

How are NHS Trusts engaging and utilising apprenticeships within the workforce?

At RSM, we work closely with our NHS trust clients, including advising on the use of apprenticeships. While there are opportunities for embedding apprenticeships, this comes with its own challenges. We recently conducted a survey and follow-on discussions with our NHS trust client base to determine how trusts are currently engaging and utilising apprenticeships within the workforce. The following key themes were highlighted.

  • There is a good level of understanding of apprenticeships across NHS Trusts, with apprenticeships specifically featuring within existing Workforce, People and Talent strategies or within dedicated apprenticeship strategies. 
  • The proportion of apprentices who successfully complete their apprenticeship within NHS trusts is well above the national average, at approximately 75%, with most remaining within the organisation. 
  • The majority of the trusts surveyed do not spend all of the apprenticeship levy they have paid. The levy is an amount paid at a rate of 0.5% of an employer’s annual pay bill, where the employer has an annual pay bill of more than £3m. The levy funds will expire 24 months from when they are paid and work on a first-in, first-out basis. Barriers to this include a lack of organisational understanding of the range of apprenticeship training available and strategies in place to support the ‘off the job’ training element. However, one NHS trust shared details of a successful initiative where they had created a budget centrally, as opposed to at department level, to fund any associated costs to backfill staffing requirements for apprenticeships.

Despite the potential benefits, only half of the NHS trusts we spoke to believe their apprenticeship programme is of high quality. We recommend clearly defining what a successful high quality apprenticeship programme may look like for your trust, with performance indicators within the framework to underpin apprenticeship priorities and ambitions. An unmonitored apprenticeship programme has the potential to become unwieldy, ineffective, and misaligned to business objectives.

What does an effective apprenticeship strategy look like?

Apprenticeships support trusts in developing and reshaping the workforce, creating clear career pathways, attracting and recruiting from wider talent pools and developing the existing workforce leading to increased staff retention. 

An effective apprenticeship strategy could help trusts to:

  • address skills gaps, increase retention and supply career development opportunities;
  • attract future talent, to the business through fulfilment of job opportunities;
  • enable service areas to find skills gaps, embed apprenticeships into their workforce planning and supply a clear pathway for employees to progress within the business creating a talent pipeline;
  • increase the skills and professional qualifications of employees; and
  • create talent and succession opportunities across the organisation to nurture talent and reduce an ageing workforce.

How RSM can help

There is no one right way to implement or develop a strategy for apprenticeships. Defining your goals and managing the associated risks will help you maintain your long-term vision. 

If you are just getting started with apprenticeships, or you want to get more from your existing programme, having a proper strategy in place is vital to an effective apprenticeship programme. It is worthwhile taking the time to consider the following questions.

  • Have you got a specific apprenticeship strategy, or are apprenticeships highlighted in your workforce planning, people or wider talent strategy?
  • Have you defined your apprenticeship’s objectives and desired impact?
  • Are you clear as to whether your apprenticeship programme is meeting your expectations?
  • Is your apprenticeship programme meeting the regulatory requirements of the Education and Skills Funding Agency?
  • Are there clear owners and advocates for apprenticeship development and levy spending?
  • Would you consider your apprenticeship programme to be high quality and delivering impact? Would your apprentices agree? 
  • Are you highlighting the opportunities and impact apprenticeships have had on the trust?

Regardless of where you are in your apprenticeship journey, we can help you perform an initial assessment to answer these questions and use the answers to devise a strategy that supports your goals.

If you would like support with starting or improving your apprenticeship programme, please contact James Whybrow.