Cumbria is ahead of the national and regional trends when it comes to taking on apprentices, the boss of the county’s leading careers organisation says.

Mark Bowman, chief executive of charity Inspira, said last year saw 10.8 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds in Cumbria participated in an apprenticeship.

That is compared to 5.5 per cent in England as a whole and 6.5 per cent in the North West.

The introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in 2017 was controversial, with many big businesses seeing it as tax rather than an incentive to take on more young people and smaller firms unclear about how it worked.

It was criticised in many quarters as a barrier for companies taking on apprentices.

However, over the past couple of years, numbers have risen again, with apprenticeship starts in the 2018/19 academic year hitting 389,200, up from 369,700 during the previous year.

Mark adds: “It’s not a huge jump, but it’s a start.

“As a careers management and personal development organisation we are committed to promoting and utilising apprenticeships though and in our organisation.

“Every year we take on average one or two apprentices who are based in our local centres or head office.

“For us, developing young people is an important aspect of our charitable status; thus, we feel it is imperative to embed the philosophy within our organisation.”

As part of the contract through Cumbria County Council, Inspira is tasked with ensuring all young people who are 16 and 17 have a September Guarantee – a place in education, and training.

For Erin Doherty, a business administration apprentice for Inspira in Barrow, the decision to choose an apprenticeship was quite easy.

She says: “I wanted the opportunity to gain experience and learn while earning money on the job.

“Knowing that apprenticeships can boost your career prospects, by learning key skills that employers within that industry want, I saw it as an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

“I am currently working towards my level two NVQ in business administration, which will then progress onto level three, which is a brilliant qualification to put on my CV.

“The thing I like most about my job is the industry I work in.

“I love seeing all the opportunity Barrow in Furness has to offer its community; and even better when we, Inspira, can help a client achieve what they thought was the impossible.

“Seeing clients build up the confidence in their selves to believe getting a job is achievable and obtainable, makes not only the clients feel proud, but me for being a part of the process.”

Inspira says the breadth of apprenticeships available in the county is impressive for a relatively small and rural county.

From the multi-nationals through to local government and SMEs, young people can earn and learn up to degree level through an apprenticeship.

There are hundreds of apprenticeships to choose from across a huge range of sectors, from construction to chemical engineer, and the move to new, employer-designed apprenticeship standards has allowed employers to come together and develop apprenticeships that meet their skills needs.

Mark adds: “I think over the past few years, employers of all sizes increasingly understand the benefit of employing apprentices and when looking at the bottom line, the value for money apprentices represent too as it cuts down on recruitment costs.”

For those employers who don’t have to pay the Apprenticeship Levy, 90 per cent of the training costs for apprentices are government-funded.

For those employers who do pay the levy, the funds are easily accessible through the apprenticeship service. There are also savings for apprentice employers from lower recruitment costs and lower salaries.

In addition, there are indirect financial returns to consider, such as a quarter of consumers are willing to pay more for products from a business they see as socially responsible, including apprentice employers.

Adults aren’t missing out either; all apprenticeships are open to people of any age.

The Department for Education published a report in November on further education and skills 2018/2019.

It showed that the share of apprenticeship starts taken up by over-25s has grown by 1.7 points, and during 2018-19, apprentices aged 25 and older formed 46 per cent of all starts.

The introduction of apprenticeship standards and more employer input into the programme, as illustrated in the UK’s first two-year master’s level senior leader marketing apprenticeship through Cranfield School of Management.

Businesses who access the Apprenticeship Levy will be able to use their funds to pay for employees to participate and help shape the employer-based portion of the programme, enabling them to create the next senior leaders within their organisation.

Mark adds: “Through our adult services, our advisers talk clients through various upskilling options, including apprenticeships.

“There are varying degrees of openness towards them, but we certainly see an increase in the uptake of apprenticeships by the 24-plus age group.”