How apprentices have been helping to address the UK’s skills gap throughout the pandemic. 

Ian Browne
Apprenticeship Partnerships, Lloyds Banking Group
10 February 2021
7 min read

For those of us involved in the world of skills, National Apprenticeship Week is a key event in the calendar.  In February 2020 as the annual series of employer, student and parent events got underway with the theme of “Look Beyond”, a few of us perhaps realized that this might be the last time, for a long while that we’d be presenting on physical stages and making valuable connections in the after-event networking.

Just as the UK started to understand and comprehend how the pandemic would affect almost every aspect of our society, inevitably the economic and educational impacts of lockdowns started to touch our usually bright and optimistic world of apprenticeships. In April 2020, apprenticeship starts had plummeted by an astonishing 72%1 with the impact on the critical school-leaver under 19 population worse still. With schools and colleges closed and infrastructure for home-schooling struggling to respond to the challenge, the pressures on young people facing uncertainty of exams and results, finding an apprenticeship or securing their place at university has been profoundly impactful on life plans and mental wellbeing.2

Apprentices at Lloyds Banking Group, like many of our colleagues faced different but similarly challenging circumstances. Although the word ‘apprentice’ commonly conjures an image of youthful school-leavers, our apprentices - pursuing one of twenty-five different standards ranging from level 2 to level 7 - span the entire working age spectrum. Though we were able to rapidly pivot our programmes to virtual learning, we needed to recognize the inevitability of life under Covid and the pressures of homeschooling, parenting, caring, flatsharing and studying simultaneously. Being there just when our customers needed us most also saw over 300 colleagues step away from their apprenticeship temporarily to put others before themselves. 

How are apprenticeships addressing the UK’s skills gap?

Prior to the pandemic, a staggering 88% of businesses in manufacturing alone reported skills shortages.In our 2020 Transformation with Tech report, almost half of businesses we surveyed said they’d have ceased trading without digital infrastructure to fall back on. Skills gaps have become wider and more exposed during the pandemic, leading to West Midlands Mayor Andy Street in our Big Conversations series describing the need to address this as ‘mission critical’.

The ingredients that make apprenticeships so unique in the world of skills are adaptability and relevance. And against this backdrop of uncertainty, apprentices have shown resilience, creativity, and eagerness to apply their learning at a time of great need. Between new young talent thriving on our audit programmes to colleagues who have been with the Group for some time, 800 of our colleagues rekindled their love for learning by starting their apprenticeship journey. Almost 500 completed successfully, with well over a third of these achieving merit or distinction grades.

Stories quickly emerged of how our apprentices applied their skills for the benefit of our customers. Level 3 apprentice Hollie Hannah demonstrated incredible empathy carrying out hundreds of wellbeing calls with vulnerable and lonely customers. Level 4 apprentice Ann-Fernee made a vital contribution to the protection of customers against the inevitable rise in online fraud attempts. Apprentices proved time and again that this is a very special mix of learning and execution and we have benefitted greatly as a Group from their skills and energy.

Our firm belief in the power of apprenticeships extends to our levy sharing initiative where we support businesses in their apprentice journey underwriting the costs of apprenticeship tuition. Despite the gloomy economic and jobs outlook, in 2020 we have helped over 250 businesses and 450 apprentices start their learning journey in critical areas of skill gaps in science, technology engineering and digital disciplines; new jobs and vital reskilling our country for the journey that lies ahead. Sharing our experience, lending reassurance, backing ambition, fueling regrowth.

Who can apply for an apprenticeship?

2020 was also a year when our sense and understanding of inclusivity has been challenged.  Apprenticeships have again demonstrated their power and potential to raise individuals above social and societal disadvantage and prejudice. Sabreen Anwar stepped beyond cultural expectations of what was considered to be a suitable job for an Asian woman to achieve success in software development and engineering. Vicki McRae proved age is no impediment by starting her level 4 apprenticeship aged 50 and has since gone on to complete her level 5. Jackson Thirgood transitioned from a background in customer service and operational leadership to train in software engineering demonstrating apprenticeships’ critical place in reskilling the UK.

In a year when many of us have felt stretched and pulled in multiple directions, our commitment to a culture of learning and improvement has not slowed. Lloyds Banking Group apprentices notched up nearly half a million hours of learning in 2020 and applied their learning to some of the challenges of the pandemic in areas of fraud and protecting vulnerable customers.   

Apprentices embody a spirit of learning and many coach the development of others inside and outside our organization. James Walters, winner of our Higher Apprentice of the Year award, has volunteered his time to present to Armed Forces personnel coming towards the end of their service, arranging shadowing days and helping preparation for this important transition into civilian life.

Apprenticeships vs university

Although numbers of students at university has risen greatly in the last decade we’ve become more aware of colleagues who, for diverse reasons - be it challenging social or cultural backgrounds, devoting themselves to raising a family - missed out on the opportunity yet always harboured a sense of “what if”?   

Though we see hundreds of colleagues achieve their aspirations through apprenticeships, every story is unique and important to the individual and their families, every apprenticeship is an opportunity for our colleagues at whatever age or stage in their career to test themselves and aspire to become their best. In doing so they become the role models that aspire others in our organization to look forward, keep developing and helps us embed a learning culture.

The debate of the past few years has sought to compare apprenticeships with a traditional university education – to place one style of learning against another and perhaps drawing us into picking a winner. Increasingly we’ve seen through 2020 that the UK needs and needs to value both systems to provide diverse pathways for our young people who will leave school in increasing numbers across this decade and need diversity of learning environments to be able to thrive and find their place in society.    

The recent Further Education White Papersignals an intent to place employers at the heart of skills development, a recognition of regional excellence and diversity and supporting adults in the pursuit of life-long learning.  Apprenticeships, T-levelsand traineeships support different styles of learning, yet for this change to happen, parents and students need support and reassurance from schools, colleges and employers of the value of apprenticeships as a specific destination in its own right.   

Tradition and culture are not easily changed.  Our colleague Asim, encouraged by his parents to ‘do the right thing’ and go to university found it was not the experience he’d hoped for. He is now thriving as an infrastructure technician apprentice, a job he might have hoped to apply for on graduation. This positive experience persuaded his parents to allow Asim’s brother to apply for an apprenticeship with the NHS – in which he is also now thriving. For these reasons in National Apprenticeship week we host sessions for students and parents to provide that reassurance so that talented individuals find the learning environment that will suit them best.


Asim is now thriving as an infrastructure technician apprentice at Lloyds Banking Group.

Why apprenticeships are good for business?

Leveraging gains from these innovations will challenge us as employers to overcome our own preconceptions when recruiting. It also presents exciting new pools of talent to those agile enough to see that talent comes in different forms, but a growth mindset and ability to learn is an essential commodity. The pandemic has mercilessly inflicted damage on certain sectors that we may never see a recovery, but it has also opened up new opportunities and increased demand in other areas, such as complex engineering, digital skills and care.   

After many years of relatively stable employment, many UK citizens are needing to rethink careers.6 To ensure these skills are productively utilized, those of us within the world of apprenticeships need to redouble our efforts to demonstrate the power of apprenticeships to support life-long learning and the relevance of skills. Apprenticeships will likely always be a powerful force in helping young people transition from school into work, but their power lies far beyond this transition point in life.   

The UK, like many other European economies, has an ageing population and people staying in the workplace for longer.The pace of technological change is unlikely to slow and any conception that skills and training applies only to the youngest in our workforce will certainly present productivity challenges, as well as miss out on the gains in wellbeing, satisfaction and retention that come when people feel they are invested in by their employer.8

We at Lloyds Banking Group believe in the power of apprenticeships to underpin our culture of continuous learning.  We see everyday the creative energies our apprentices bring to their work and their determination to apply learning and make a difference to our business, our customers the communities we live in. We’re exceptionally proud to consider the 450 apprentices we support, who are working in small and medium sized business in London, the Midlands and the North-West as part of this extended family of apprentices. 

Round tables we’re hosting in National Apprenticeship Week will only reveal the tip of the iceberg that potential levy sharing is creating. We will continue to innovate by bringing apprentices into areas of tradition such as risk and audit so that we can embrace the opportunities machine learning, AI and data analytics can bring to these professions. And we will shortly experiment with reciprocal mentoring, partnering our apprentices with those working at companies we support through levy sharing so that exchanges of experience and perspectives can ground us in the challenges our business customers face and ultimately inform how we serve them better.

As we kicked off the events for National Apprenticeship Week 2020 we could not have imagined the year that it would be. But it has shown us consistently that Lloyds Banking Group has benefitted from the resilience and resourcefulness of our apprentices. We have faced into unexpected challenges but the growth mindset and an instinct to learn and collaborate has served exceptionally.  

The theme of National Apprenticeship Week 2021 is Build the Future. We have no doubt that the future, as we build pathways to recovery will present twists and turns but we remain convinced apprenticeships are a valuable and precious asset and used wisely will be a vital force in the journey to helping Britain recover.


About the author Kathryn Marshall

Apprenticeship Senior Manager, Lloyds Banking Group

Kathryn Marshall leads on apprenticeship strategy and delivery at Lloyds Banking Group. Apprenticeships are integral to the talent and development proposition within the Group and there are typically 2000 colleagues on programme at any time. The delivery includes over 25 different programmes from level 2 to level 7.

Kathryn is an active member of the Apprenticeship Ambassador Network in Yorkshire & Humber and the Multi Regional Group and is also a member of a number of trailblazer groups supporting the development and enhancement of apprenticeship standards and T Levels.

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About the author Ian Browne

Apprenticeship Partnerships, Lloyds Banking Group

Ian Browne leads on External Skills and Apprenticeship Levy Transfer for Lloyds Banking Group. In 2019 Lloyds Banking Group committed to share £9m of its apprenticeship levy with small and medium companies over 3 years. The programme is supporting over 250 businesses and 450 apprentices, closing critical skill gaps in the wider UK economy and supporting employment.  

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