Apprenticeship reforms: we have take off

The government’s apprenticeship reforms have prompted many sectors to rethink how they recruit and retain talent across all levels of their business. As the Civil Service Awards skills category seeks to reward those who have shown collaborative approaches to skills development, Alison Walker looks at how the airline industry has worked together to deliver real change and positive outcomes for their industry 

The airline industry is highly competitive. In the sky, operators seek the best routes and airport slots. On the ground they compete to be seen as the best employer and secure the best staff. 

But in response to the government’s apprenticeship programme, these businesses have put their differences aside and collaborated on a common approach across a sector which, in 2018, contributed £22bn to the UK economy and supports around half a million jobs, according to the Department for Transport (DfT). 

The introduction of the apprenticeship levy, alongside the possibility to source new training providers or become an employer provider themselves and offer degree-level apprenticeships, has caused many businesses to review their approach and reshape their learning and development offer for current and future employees. 

Through the Aviation Industry Skills Board (AISB) – a body established in 2007 to develop and maintain the right talent pipelines across the sector – rivals such as BA, easyJet, Virgin and TUI have come together to develop industry-wide apprenticeship standards, shared learning from the new approaches and landed their programmes. 

The AISB also received mentoring and guidance from Scott Hatwood at the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), and the sector can now offer a suite of apprenticeship programmes across a multitude of roles from cabin crew, ground handling, baggage handling and customer service, to HQ functions such as finance, project management and data analysis. 


Employer members:

  • British Airways (chair)
  • Swissport UK Ltd (vice-chair)
  • Bristow Group
  • easyJet
  • Flybe
  • Gatwick Airport Ltd
  • London Heathrow Airport Ltd
  • Menzies Aviation
  • Monarch Engineering (MAEL)
  • RAF
  • Thomas Cook
  • TUI UK & Ireland
  • Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd

Associate members:

  • Association of Employers and Learning Providers
  • Department for Transport
  • Royal Aeronautical Society
  • The Honourable Company of Air Pilots

How did the airline sector achieve so much, so quickly?

It is clear that the AISB has been integral to achieving much to date and building agreement across this diverse and global industry. Karen Hewitt, BA’s apprenticeship manager and chair of the AISB, mentions the experience of bidding together for government support via their existing sector skills council (SSC) as a key factor in their collective learning. She adds that the industry needed to collaborate to address the shared challenges of a maturing, seasonal workforce. 


Karen Hewitt, BA’s apprenticeship manager and chair of the AISB, has been developing BA’s approach since 2010. BA now offers apprenticeships in ground handling, baggage handling, engineering, logistics, finance, project management and data analysis, and launches its cabin crew apprenticeship programme in March 2019.

“We always had apprenticeships but the levy has broadened the conversations we have within BA about talent and learning routes for our staff,” says Hewitt. “We had to change perceptions about what an apprentice is, too. Given the range of learning from level 2 up to 7, it can include school entry, graduate, MBA level and of course existing staff learning and development interventions.”

That innovation, incorporating the learning of existing long-serving staff, is a key change for all industries and, like others in HR teams, Hewitt has been the interpreter within her own company about the government’s new approach.

“I like to think that if we removed the word ‘apprentice’ and replaced it with ‘accreditation of learning’ we would realise this is something we have always done, but now with more structure, rules and wider assessment of mentors and providers.”

BA has launched the Aspire Programme for existing staff as an apprenticeship aimed at supporting customer service agents to develop and progress as team leaders, ensuring multiplicity of skills and adaptability of their employees, too.

So what advice would Hewitt share with others? “Recognise you are an employer not a college. And, for the HR manager told to ‘sort out the levy’, know that you will need to navigate the rules carefully – even though the levy provides better transparency, standards and knowledge about the funding bands.”

She suggests that HR managers seek advice from an informed source, not necessarily a training provider whose interests are commercial. Talk to your ESFA, SSC and IFA relationship managers and use them to steer your approach. She adds that you should invest in apprenticeships for the right reasons as part of your overall talent strategy – aim for quality, not just hitting the numbers, and integrate with existing programmes.

Finally, don’t try to do it all on your own. Join your local or industry forum, and speak to a cross-section of people.

“The arrival of the apprenticeships programme and the levy catapulted that conversation, with us all realising that we couldn’t be trailblazers on our own!” she says. “The AISB created that collaborative environment, a platform for both large airlines and smaller operators to share, collaborate, support and address the challenges together.” Collaboration and trust across the group was also fostered by the experience of attending government sessions on the emerging policy, and also with support from the ESFA, she adds. “We have built trust across the forum, with different airlines in the lead for developing and landing different programmes. For instance, easyJet led the cabin crew standard, BA the ground handlers, and TUI the pilots’ programme.”

What is the role of the ESFA and how can it help?

The ESFA is a single agency under the Department for Education, responsible for funding all education and skills for children, young people and adults, assuring the spend, regulating providers and intervening when the market fails. 

Hatwood, senior national account manager at the ESFA, sees his role as being the interpreter between his sectors and policymakers, explaining government policies to businesses and communicating businesses’ concerns back to government.

“I share with my government colleagues the reality of how businesses in each sector operate, particularly as they develop their apprenticeship programme policies,” he says. “As a result we have tackled the teething problems and are focused on capacity building. For example, supporting businesses and providers on getting prepared for Ofsted, or sharing learning with others via platforms such as LinkedIn.”

Many in the sector mentioned the great support they had received from Hatwood, and he is equally complimentary about how the sector worked to deliver the new approach: “The airlines came together as a group to develop a range of apprenticeship programmes. They showed renewed enthusiasm for apprenticeships and, impressively, left competition at the door.”

How to leverage airline industry experience

The AISB counts representatives from the DfT and the IFA as members and has other airlines clamouring to join. It will soon be shadowing the forum for the aerospace sector, sharing learning with its sister industry. 

The AISB meetings are evolving too. This sector has a very mobile seasonal workforce, often with cabin crew working six- to nine-month contracts in peak business travel and holiday seasons, then leaving to join a different airline for the following season. That break offers potential for work-life balance, career breaks, being the trainer for their employers or spending rotational time in HQ, but has also prompted questions around how this model of working, present in most airlines and other sectors, can avoid breaks in apprentices’ learning. 

Hewitt explains: “The conversation has moved from the discussions on common standards for apprentices, assessments and rules, and is now focused upon careers. How can we support employees as they move around the different airlines, how can we avoid them having to repeat what they have already learned in one airline when they join another?

“The apprenticeship has given them a common currency to move around but how can we make that work better for our people, in a way that reflects how our industry workforce model works?”

The fact that the AISB is attended by representatives from the DfT and the Institute for Apprenticeships elevates its forum more towards a government-industry partnership approach, and promises to offer the sector a real opportunity to jointly tackle the workforce challenges of the future.


When we meet, Angie Lemkes, Virgin Atlantic’s performance and apprenticeship manager, is excitedly preparing for the launch of the first cohort of 100 apprenticeships for Virgin’s cabin crew the next day.

 Having already launched Virgin’s customer service, business administration, retail and engineering apprenticeships, Angie is well-placed to advise how others should approach developing their own programmes.

 “It’s been really enjoyable working with others in the sector via the AISB over the last couple of years. We have agreed that we are going to keep meeting up as a special interest group. We have formed some great friendships too,” she says.

What advice would Angie give to others? First, work closely with your ESFA account manager – they can help you. Go to their conferences and build the relationship. Also, find the right partners, trainers and providers for you. Don’t try to do all the training yourself – outsource. For example, you can outsource finance to accountancy trainers. Finally, be prepared to challenge preconceived ideas of apprentices and select your apprentices carefully.

She adds: “Don’t skimp on your recruitment and development centres, use them as a two-way process. We have noticed higher retention rates from the new programmes, but if your apprentices do go elsewhere, ensure they can speak about their good experience with you!”

What can government learn from the airlines’ experience?

This sector appears to have had a positive experience developing its programmes, so what are the key messages airlines have for government as it learns from the first couple of years of delivery and adapts apprenticeship policies? The AISB has identified two key issues stopping some airlines from fully developing the programmes that are needed, and is now discussing these with government.

The first challenge is to revisit the levy fund for pilot apprenticeships. It costs around £100,000 plus salary to train a pilot, but the levy that can be drawn down is only £3,000. Previously, pilots funded their own training but more support via the levy would ensure the pilot profession becomes more diverse, drawing from less affluent households. 

The AISB and government are working together to see how jointly they can come up with creative solutions to open up entry. Becoming a pilot via a properly funded degree-level apprenticeship programme drawing from diverse backgrounds will no doubt prove to be hugely successful.

The second challenge is to reflect the seasonality of the airline sector, and enable apprentices to rotate around the sector reflecting their propensity to work in several different airlines. Again the AISB is working creatively with government to see how it can develop an approach that maintains the quality and integrity of the learning, but reflects the realities around how the sector operates and a modern workplace.

It’s clear that aviation apprenticeships will grow in importance as a factor contributing to sustainability of the sector into 2050. Building the talent pipeline of skilled, enthusiastic recruits ready to take on future roles and step into the cockpit, the cabin and “below the wing” as the current workforce matures and retires will be as critical to success as digital skills, innovation and delivering great customer experience. 

Understanding the importance of nurturing those working in airlines and airports, and their associated local employment impact across the regional airport hubs around the UK, will keep UK airlines at the forefront of global travel in the years ahead.

The AISB is now working on an industry strategy with the DfT, building on their relationship across the forum and discussing new issues such as mature learners and second careers. So overall this has been a positive experience that has also had the beneficial by-product of broadening the sector’s conversation, approaches and strategy towards its whole workforce. 

When an aircraft comes in to land at our busiest airports, a wide range of people are required to work together to ensure a safe landing – from air traffic control and pilots, to ground handling, maintenance and crew. So too with the apprenticeship programme.

The successfully landing of an industry-wide approach has been the work of many people each contributing their own skills and expertise. And the airline industry offers some useful lessons for others still preparing to land their apprenticeship programmes as well as those getting ready to taxi safely across the runway to pick up their next cohort of eager travellers bound for exciting destinations. 

This article first appeared in the 2019 Skills & Apprenticeships Supplement, published by CSW and our sister publications The House and Training Journal. Click here to read the full supplement

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