Apprenticeship numbers in the joinery and woodworking industry could suffer “catastrophic collapse” if the CITB was abolished, according to a policy response this month from the British Woodworking Federation (BWF).

The BWF has submitted views to the Government’s consultation on a new apprenticeship levy, explaining a catalogue of concerns about the future funding of apprenticeships and the support available for wider training initiatives.

Iain McIlwee, chief executive of the BWF, said:

“The joinery and woodworking sector delivers a third of all apprenticeships in construction, the highest ratio in all the specialist trades. The joinery apprentice is the lifeblood of this industry and the flow of new apprentices has been fundamental to delivering skills to our sector.

“You only need to see the calibre of apprentices represented on our ‘Wow I Made That’ website to see the amazing young people we can attract and the fantastic careers that we can deliver. The system can work. Yes, change is needed, but it should be natural evolution, not short-sighted revolution.”

The consultation by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills sets out the government’s early ideas for a new levy to be imposed on every large employer across all industries.  Announced in the Chancellor’s summer Budget, the initiative is designed to force larger firms in particular to take on more apprentices and to increase their contribution to staff training. Unlike the current CITB levy, the money would be collected by HMRC and would only fund post-16 apprenticeships in England and not any additional training or upskilling.

“Our aim is to increase the number of high quality apprenticeships in joinery and woodworking, helping the industry to reach its recruitment target of more than 4,000 new people a year for the next four years,” says Iain McIlwee.

“The new proposed apprentice levy is shrouded with uncertainty. How it will be balanced across the UK, how it reconciles with the existing CITB Levy, how it will be collected and returned and, fundamentally, who will have to pay.  Uncertainty makes it more difficult to make positive long-term decisions. 

“Our fear is that funding levels will be reduced and the administrative burden increased. In this case businesses will be forced to re-evaluate whether apprenticeship training is the best option, or simply to revert to in-house training.

“Whatever framework emerges it must recognise the wider learning objectives of an apprenticeship and the employer risk.  Many of our members rely on the CITB to support us in navigating, managing and delivering apprenticeship training; without this support the time and risk will increase.

“In short, we are not against a levy, but we are against two. We still need the CITB and any new levy should be built around CITB rather than seeking to replace it.”

Iain McIlwee explained that, despite assertions from the Minister, the BWF was very concerned that the proposed changes would also drive down the quality and overall attractiveness of apprenticeships.  

He said:

“Apprenticeships need parity of esteem with academic studies. In practice this means 16-18 year olds having a choice to continue on in education or to learn a trade through an apprenticeship, with exactly the same funding available (i.e. fully funded). 

“It also means apprentices have to be more than simply training for a job, but focussing on preparing for a career.

“It is appalling to hear that the term apprentice is being applied to 12 week courses, and reports from OFSTED indicating standards are falling with some apprentices not even knowing they are one!  This is so far removed from the three-year apprentice programmes we support as to be demeaning.”

To ensure a consistent voice with other construction federations and organisations allied to the BWF, the Federation is backing the messages from Build UK and the CBI which says that, if an apprenticeships levy is to be announced in this month’s Autumn Statement, it should not significantly increase costs or penalise the construction industry, and should be simple and easy to administer.  

The BWF is calling for the CITB to be retained, although subject to a significant review of its operations and the way that grants are administered.

As well as direct lobbying, BWF is urging its members to contact their local MPs to drive home the industry’s views on the changes and joinery’s unique insights into construction apprenticeships.