Interview: Over-24s deserve the chance to gain an apprenticeship, says Barclays exec

We caught up with Mike Thompson, director of early careers at Barclays, where he heads up the bank’s apprenticeship programme. On the agenda was the apprenticeship levy, whether David Cameron is improving the apprenticeship sector, opportunities for the disabled and how Barclays is helping the over-24s.

Much has changed within the apprenticeship sector since we last spoke with you, with more and more young people choosing employment instead of going to University. Why do you think apprenticeships have taken centre stage in 2015?

One of the biggest reasons as to why apprenticeships have risen to the attention of the government is because they’ve recognised the need for an improved vocational and higher education system.

The skills gap that exists in the UK at the moment has really pushed apprenticeships into the spotlight  – the need to create high level qualifications has really taken precedence in Parliament. David Cameron has viewed first-hand that a number of businesses require employees that have high levels of vocational skills, so is leading the charge to help more young people.

I also think the UK understands that the ‘old system’ of apprenticeships needs to be modernised, that more businesses needed to be fully engaged and involved in apprenticeships.

The trailblazer programme has also been a huge reason for apprenticeship success. It’s brought brand new industries into the apprenticeship space, which is hugely exciting as it offers a lot more choice to young people, bringing about a genuinely viable alternative to university for many.

It’s been less than four months since the Conservative Party came to power, but do you think this new Parliament is doing a good job where apprenticeships are concerned?

I think generally there continues to be a very positive government perspective towards apprenticeships – I think the Tories are very focused on improving apprenticeships, their policies are moving in the right direction.

David Cameron is getting businesses more engaged with hiring young people, which I think is a very positive thing.

The new policy changes are opening up more opportunities beyond maybe the traditional 16-24 year old group for employers like ourselves. I think the system is becoming simpler, more flexible  and more employer-focused, so I am pleased with the direction in which the government is going in.

The apprenticeship levy is a huge talking point within the further education community. What is Barclays’ stance on the levy – are you and your firm happy with contributing towards it?

I think the devil is in the detail. Right now I don’t think we exactly know how much the levy is going to cost, so I think it’s very difficult to give a detailed response at this time.

I do think however that business owners should invest into their workforce and their development.

Apprentice Eye attended the Young Fabians debate on the future of apprenticeships, in which you claimed that ‘‘half of young people in the UK can’t gain an apprenticeship due to a lack of GCSEs.’’

Who do you think should be at fault for this problem – are the schools educating its students properly, or do you think that the apprenticeship sector raises the bar too high for school leavers?

I think it’s become a trend for employers to set their own threshold for recruitment, with an A*-C in maths and English to become the minimum standard and that is leaving a lot of people out of employment, not just in the apprenticeship sector.

I think we do need to see an improvement with how students are taught maths and English GCSE’s. I think businesses need to recognise that an apprenticeship can help their employees pass their exams, without the need to re-sit their GCSE’s in school or college.

Half of our apprentices don’t have qualifications in maths and English when they join us, but they all pass their exams during their time with us.

Barclays has just announced the launch of its ‘Bolder Apprenticeship’ initiative, in which you are taking on people over the age of 24 as apprentices.

The UK usually associates apprenticeships with younger people, particularly school leavers. Do you think your new scheme will help create a new definition for the sector?

I hope so. I think the focus on apprenticeships has always been driven by the government as they make funding specifically available for young people, but technically anybody can undertake an apprenticeship and that has always been the case, however not many companies in the UK have focused on apprenticeship schemes for older people.

Through the Trailblazer reforms, the view that people have on apprenticeships is starting to change. I believe that a lot more companies will start to look at taking on older apprentices because there is a huge talent pool out there; people who are looking for employment, people who are open to learn new skills and for whom an apprenticeship would be perfect.

Your company has a successful history of working with a wide range of apprentices, including disabled people. Do you think large firms are doing enough to help people with learning difficulties or disabilities?

If you look at the statistics, young people with disabilities are five times less likely to be in employment than an able-bodied young person, so it does suggest that people with disabilities find it much more difficult to get into employment.

I think there is much more to be done in this area. There is a group of young people out there that find it significantly harder to find employment, and that is something that British businesses should recognise. Companies and recruitment firms should ensure that their policies give disabled people an opportunity to gain employment.