“The four UK nations are taking four different approaches to apprenticeship policy.”

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics indicates that the UK’s labour market is arguably tighter than at any point since records began, with record high employment. In Northern Ireland, the situation is compounded by rising skills shortages.

High-quality content is needed to train potential talent. While that should be a relatively simple matter given that the responsibility for skills is devolved, the whole UK apprenticeship landscape has been complicated by the introduction of trailblazer apprenticeships in England.

With the UK government moving away from the National Occupational Standards (NOS), which used to provide continuity across the whole of the UK, the devolved administrations have had to act quickly to retain this valued measure of workplace competence. Yet the overall effect of the change in England is that the four UK nations are now taking four different approaches to apprenticeship policy. No one body is acting to ensure the outcome works for multinational employers or ultimately secures a sustainable and resilient UK workforce.

At Energy & Utility Skills, we have been commissioned to review the apprenticeship frameworks in Northern Ireland. It is a recognition that apprenticeship standards need further analysis following a call made by leading sector employers in our workforce renewal and skills strategy, which offers a coherent strategic plan for the energy and utilities sector that the government’s national infrastructure plan for skills did not include.

The strategy predicts a sector shortage of 221,000 workers in the UK by 2027. The lack of suitably skilled labour is reflected in the prevalence of sector vacancies that are proving hard to fill. Receiving hundreds of responses per vacancy is no indication the market will provide the people needed, because the lack of applicants with the required skills, qualifications or experience is already significant. Within the wider energy and utilities sector, 36 per cent of all vacancies are skills shortage vacancies – the highest proportion of any business sector. The national average is 23 per cent.

It is vital that we have consistent application of skills policy across all four nations of the UK to avoid employers incurring increased costs and red tape as a result of multiple rules and regimes.

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