Amplifiying the voices of Scottish employers to widen the range of apprenticeships will create opportunity for all, writes Peter Farrer, Chief Operations Officer at Scottish Water and new Chair of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board



HAVING had the benefit of working with the operations side of a business for over 30 years, at Scottish Water, I have seen first-hand just how important people are to the success of any organisation. 

And it’s one of the reasons why a new role as Chair of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board’s (SAAB) Group Board was an opportunity that spoke to me on many levels. 

Attracting and retaining talent is the firmest assurance a business can have to enable it to flourish - and apprenticeships have been the strong foundation from which Scottish Water has built its strategy to get the right people into its business.

I have been able to watch yesterday’s apprentices become tomorrow’s leaders and experts.

Now, I am in a fortunate position as the Chair of the SAAB Group Board, where I can lead an exceptional group of people and businesses to affect policy and have a positive impact on Scotland’s skills and education system.

The purpose of SAAB is “to provide employer leadership to the governance and development of apprenticeships in Scotland, so that they are aligned with industry and economic need, Fair Work and job opportunities.” 

I am already struck by the breadth and depth of SAAB’s work, having been expertly led by previous Chair, Alison McGregor, ex-CEO of HSBC. In its time so far, it has shifted the skills system dial away from being one steered by government, towards an employer-driven system, recognising that behind every apprenticeship, is an employer offering an opportunity. 

I have watched it drive the apprenticeship agenda in Scotland, making ministers, policy makers, educators, young people and other employers sit up and take note of the undeniable benefits that apprenticeships can bring to everyone involved. 
Recent stats published show that uptake of apprenticeships is heading towards its pre-pandemic level, which is hugely encouraging.

There has been a year-on-year increase in all age groups, with the 16-19 group and 20-24 age group experiencing the biggest increase. 

There has also been an increase in starts from people from BME groups and care experience people. We also know that apprenticeship pathways are positively impacting those from our most deprived areas.

And so, we can see that apprenticeships provide a win-win result for learners and employers – with a role in social justice, supporting young people, equality and diversity in Scotland. 

But there is also a significant third ‘win’ – Scotland’s economy. Apprenticeships provide a faster and better aligned route to fill skills gaps and connect young people with skills that are needed by businesses and therefore the economy. 

Contribution figures are stark. Currently, the average investment in some apprenticeships is around £4,000 per person compared with £32,000 for an equivalent undergraduate discipline. 

Not forgetting the key point: apprentices earn a real wage and industry experience from day one, unlike academic undergraduate degrees. 

The Graduate Apprenticeship (GA) example clearly shows the similarities – same degree and qualification; and the main difference – four years industry experience, four years earning a wage without student loans and four years contributing to the economy, in the case of the GA. 


Scotland’s Apprentice of the Year Jennifer Kolonko


So with the evidence being so stark: that apprenticeships are a win-win-win situation for learners, employers and Scotland and its economy, why is there still so much work to do?

There are complexities and barriers within the skills system. 

Firstly, work needs to be done to change the hearts and minds of people with the greatest influence on young people at the start of their career journey, as we know that there still exists a degree of snobbery which leans towards traditional academic education. 

Secondly, systemic barriers exist - current investment is around £2.2bn annually in academic pathways, versus £80m-£100m in apprenticeship pathways - 4% of the total funding. 

This is despite employers crying out for more apprenticeships, across a wider range of subjects. 

Employers clearly recognise the immediate benefits such as industry experience, a ‘work-ready’ approach and the ability to be productive to a business from day one.

My vision for SAAB is simple: I want there to be an apprenticeship available to every young person in Scotland who wants one, and for any employer to be able to offer apprenticeships in their field. 

The changing world of work will make employers more vocal and through SAAB, I will ensure that every employer voice in Scotland is heard - the system just needs to support this and allow the demand for skills from employers to be the driving force behind the system. 

I truly believe this to be achievable as we continue to collaborate effectively with Scottish Government and its agencies. I feel proud to be part of this process.

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MAKING an apprenticeship available for every young person in Scotland is the ambition for Peter Farrer as he takes over as Chair of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board (SAAB).

The employer-led body in charge of apprenticeships in Scotland has appointed the business leader to lead its group of industry experts.
Peter, Scottish Water’s Chief Operating Officer, takes on the role to lead the strategic direction of the Board’s five groups, which operate as ‘the voice of industry on apprenticeships in Scotland’.

It comes at an important stage in the evolution of the skills landscape, with employers now placed firmly at the centre of the apprenticeship system. SAAB now lead on the standards and frameworks and overall governance of apprenticeships in Scotland, ensuring that they are industry–owned.

The appointment comes following the departure of Alison McGregor, former CEO of HSBC in Scotland, who stood as Chair for four years.

Peter brings with him over three decades of industry experience and expertise in the field of apprenticeships, having been central to the development of Scottish Water’s people strategy which utilises apprenticeships as a model of developing talent.

He said: “I want there to be an apprenticeship available to every young person who wants to do one in Scotland, and for any employer to be able to offer apprenticeships in their field. This will be at the heart of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board’s strategy going forward.

“I am now proud to be in the position where I can help to lead such an exceptional group of people and businesses to ensure apprenticeships get the recognition they deserve.”

“Plans are underway to refresh the SAAB’s strategy for the next two years and identify key areas of work which will help continue to strengthen the employer voice in apprenticeships and ensure effective collaboration of all bodies involved in Scotland’s skills system.

Mike Cantlay, Chair of Scottish Funding Council, the agency which funds colleges, universities and works with Skills Development Scotland to jointly fund and deliver Foundation and Graduate Apprenticeships in Scotland, said: “Peter is a welcome addition to the already exceptional membership which is the SAAB. This heralds a new phase of collaboration between the Apprenticeship Board and its partners such as Scottish Funding Council, Skills Development Scotland and Scottish Government.”

Frank Mitchell, CEO of Scottish Power Energy Networks and Chair of Skills Development Scotland said: “SAAB has been hugely successful and has created a strong ‘employer-led’ platform for the future growth and development of apprenticeships in Scotland.

“We shouldn’t underestimate or undersell the distance travelled by the Board so far – with thanks to Alison McGregor as outgoing Chair, for her expert leadership so far. SAAB are one of the few, truly independent, employer-led bodies, offering a genuinely authentic employer voice. I look forward to seeing Peter continue this remarkable work.”