Apprenticeships: Paying the levy, reaping the rewards
The apprenticeship levy has been introduced, but what does it mean for the legal industry, wonders Emma Finamore
Employers are being encouraged to take on more apprentices following the introduction of a new apprenticeship levy in April. Firms with a pay bill over £3m each year must pay into the levy, and can use it to fund their own apprenticeship programmes. The Law Society has estimated that at least 258 law firms – 2.7 per cent of all legal businesses – will be subject to the charge.
Funds in a firm’s apprenticeship service account – and funding provided by the government through co-investment – can fund apprenticeship training and end-point assessment. This must be with a government-approved training provider and assessment organisation, which can be found on the government website. Once the apprenticeship training has started, monthly payments will be automatically taken from employers’ accounts and sent to providers.
Smaller legal businesses, with pay bills under £3m – about 97 per cent of firms – will not be required to pay the levy. These will share the cost of training and assessing their apprentices with the government – called ‘co-investment’. From May 2017, they will pay 10 per cent towards the cost of apprenticeship training and the government will pay the rest, up to the funding band maximum.
Apprenticeships in the legal sector – such as the legal executive apprenticeship at level 6, the paralegal apprenticeship at level 3, and the solicitor apprenticeship at level 7 – have existed for some time, but it is thought that the new levy is set to encourage hundreds more firms to use the schemes.
Eversheds Sutherland already employs apprentices in its four legal practice areas, as well as in business service teams operating in client support, corporate responsibility and diversity, document production, facilities, and marketing. Its eight level 7 solicitor apprentices are in their first year of six working towards qualification, and the firm will have 11 more apprentice solicitors starting this autumn.
The firm wants to expand on this by reviewing its apprenticeship offering both for law-related apprenticeships and also for non-law-related areas such as accountancy and management, and broadening opportunities with business administration in support areas.
While the process of setting up programmes is extensive – particularly complying with the Skills Funding Agency – James Wilson, the firm’s emerging talent business partner in international operations, says that lack of awareness among young people was one of the real hurdles in founding the schemes.
‘One of the biggest challenges has been raising awareness within schools and colleges of what opportunities are available,’ he says. ‘We have worked hard across the UK to attend school and college careers fairs, speaking to both students and parents. Law firms are well set up for graduate recruitment but apprentice recruitment is very different and requires a very different approach. Getting this right is key to a successful apprenticeship programme.’
Wilson says that using levy funding for existing employees can also be complicated as it involves identifying potential apprentices internally and matching their needs to those of the business and apprenticeship being offered. ‘On a more practical level, there is the logistical issue of freeing up current employees’ time to ensure they can fully focus on the study aspect of an apprenticeship when they are already in busy roles,’ he continues. It’s vital, he adds, to remember to look for potential more than experience or achievement when recruiting from school.
As a result, the firm is changing its current competency-based assessment process to a more strengths-based approach. ‘Once in the firm, support from line managers is essential to enable the apprentices to find their feet in a new role and ask the inevitable questions without worry,’ he says. ‘Finally, it’s key to ensure the correct balance between study and workplace is observed; no one should feel they are under too much time pressure, especially in the first year of the apprenticeship.’
Eversheds Sutherland’s apprentices are balancing studying for a law degree with working four days per week, many in an office environment for the very first time in their lives. To help with this adjustment, Wilson says that – as well as line managers – each apprentice is assigned a buddy to help guide them through their programme and future career with the firm.
The work is worth it, though: the firm has seen massive enthusiasm from its apprentices, and a desire to learn and self-develop. ‘We are already convinced that our schemes will provide us with committed, loyal, and practical members of the firm whichever role they take up in Eversheds Sutherland in the future,’ says Wilson. ‘Broadening our apprenticeship programme to other areas will bring many other benefits, allowing us to develop and retain existing employees while they gain qualifications relevant to their role. Externally it allows us to reach a more diverse range of candidates, allowing us to really bring in the top talent of the future.’
Emma Finamore is an editor at AllAboutGroup
For more details on apprenticeships, the process of setting them up, apprentice wages, and training providers, visit AllAboutSchoolLeavers’ dedicated recruiters’ pages at www.allaboutschoolleavers.co.uk