Will the apprenticeship levy contribute positively towards employee engagement? David Willett from the Open University discusses how retention, productivity and cost effciences are just some of the benefits included with apprenticeships in the workplace.

Low productivity is a perennial British problem. The UK trails behind the other G7 nations in the productivity stakes – so how do we strengthen the Achilles’ heel of the British economy?

Of course, employee engagement and productivity go hand in hand. Businesses with a high level of engagement repeatedly report higher productivity. Engaged employees are more attentive, they look out for the needs of their colleagues and their organisation, and take real ownership of their work.

There are many ways to improve engagement and productivity but, for me, the apprenticeship levy will provide a systematic policy solution. The UK – when compared to many other European countries, underinvests in training so it’s no real surprise that we have a disengaged workforce.

At the moment, hard-working employees putting in longer hours are bolstering the minimal productivity growth we’ve seen in the last year, but this isn’t sustainable. The risks to employers include growing discontent, lower engagement and lower retention as staff members begin to look for greener grass.

Seeking ways to improve employee engagement is a much better strategy for achieving greater efficiency. This isn’t the only factor to consider of course, but it should encourage us to think more about what makes staff tick and how organisations can get the most of out of their employees.

Offering valuable staff development opportunities is one element of this, and an instrumental one for boosting employee engagement. And this is where the upcoming Apprenticeship Levy can be seen as a friend, rather than foe.

Like it or not, from 6 April 2017, organisations with a turnover of £3 million or more will have to spend 0.5% of their income on the levy. While some employers are viewing this as a tax, really it should be seen as an investment – as money that’s paid in is designed to be recouped through your organisation’s ‘Levy pot’, to train apprentices and boost skills. It only becomes a tax if you don’t use it because otherwise, unfortunately, you will lose it.

Let’s clear up some common myths:
• An apprenticeship does not have to be an entry-level role – there are different levels of apprenticeship out there, all the way up to Masters’ degrees – there’s an option for everyone, whatever their skill level or experience, or your business requirement
• Work-based apprenticeship programmes are not just for new hires, they can also be used to develop the skills of existing employees as part of a personal development programme
• Apprenticeships are not only for the young – anyone at any life-stage can be an apprentice

There are obvious benefits to the employee: they can increase their skills and employability, earn while they learn, and of course, they can gain a qualification.

And for the employer, a strategically-grounded apprenticeship programme has the potential to deliver enhanced performance, increased efficiency and improved productivity. Providing high quality training and clear progression routes for staff also helps with employee retention and recruitment.

Engagement and retention

Identifying the potential in people and investing in work-based training makes staff feel valued.

Integrated, work-based apprenticeship programmes can be used to develop the skills of existing employees as part of a planned personal development programme, helping increase motivation, job satisfaction and a sense of loyalty. They can also be used as part of a redeployment programme post-organisational restructure.

With a levy-funded apprenticeship, workers must complete the course of study, and are committed to remaining with the company while they do so. With a completion time of around 3-4 years for a degree apprenticeship, there are benefits in terms of lower staff turnover and savings on recruitment costs.

Furthermore, if you take on apprentices in junior or mid-level roles, other staff members can also reap the benefits – providing them with valuable opportunities to develop managerial and mentoring skills, and gain line management experience.

Giving those who haven’t previously had access to higher education routes the opportunity to up-skill can unlock hidden potential and help create a more diverse workforce in the long-term, creating new ways of thinking and approaches within your business.


An engaged and highly skilled workforce is a more productive workforce. And apprentices can even deliver value before they complete their training, especially amongst existing staff, as they can put the new skills they learn into practice long before they qualify, increasing productivity much earlier than in other forms of training.


Having an apprenticeship programme can also provide strategic benefits for an organisation in terms of attracting new talent, especially in the case of degree apprenticeships. Being able to gain a degree without the £27,000 cost, and gain valuable work experience at the same time, is a tempting proposition.

Cost efficiencies

Degree-level apprenticeship programmes offer an opportunity to bring in and nurture sought-after talent at an earlier stage, at lower salary levels than graduates command.

We know that increased engagement leads to enhanced productivity, and making sure staff members feel valued, and have the skills they need to be efficient, is one of the best ways to achieve this.

Work-based learning provides a solution to the problems we are seeing in our economy, our businesses and in our own working lives, and apprenticeships are a great opportunity to address these. With more employers offering more learning opportunities, we will see a revolution in the British workforce, as it becomes more skilled and more socially mobile.