This page sets out guidance and temporary measures for employers, in response to the impact of COVID-19. It outlines the changes that the Department for the Economy (DfE) is making to its apprenticeship programmes during the COVID-19 pandemic and provides guidance related to these changes, as well as answers to other common questions.

Guidance for employers should be read alongside wider government's COVID-19 guidance and support for business and employers

The government has introduced a series of urgent measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. DfE will keep this guidance, under review, and will continue updating this guidance as new information is available.

This guidance and the temporary measures introduced, published on 23 April 2020, apply until further notice (updated 31 July 2020).

General information

The Department for the Economy (DfE) has been working to respond to the challenges facing apprenticeships as a result of COVID-19.

These are undoubtedly difficult times for apprentices, employers and training contractors and DfE continues to implement new measures to address the impact of the pandemic. This includes the suspension of all face-to-face education and training. However there has been a partial reopening of Further Education (FE) colleges and work-based-learning providers to support the awarding of vocational qualifications this summer.

COVID-19 has also led to employers tailoring and adapting their businesses as a result of increases in demand within certain sectors and the need to recruit new employees. It is important that the value and relevance of apprenticeships in these circumstances are considered so that new employees, or existing employees operating in a new role, can acquire skills that are important for personal, business and economic stability and for future growth.   

DfE has commissioned CCEA Regulation to work closely with the awarding organisations and other regulators to ensure, where possible, that learners in NI taking vocational qualifications are not disadvantaged by the suspension of scheduled exams/assessments due to social distancing.

Please note: Any reference to “training contractor” includes Contracted Training Providers, Further Education Colleges and Universities.

Intervention Measures for Employers

The UK Government and the NI Executive have taken steps to support businesses and individuals as a result of COVID-19 to enable economic activity levels to return to pre-pandemic levels.

DfE has also developed a range of immediate measures, which have been agreed with training contractors, to address the immediate impact of COVID-19 on apprenticeship programmes.

In this difficult time, DfE recognises that employers and training contractors delivering apprenticeship programmes are doing their best for their apprentices. DfE want to support this by ensuring that, wherever possible, apprentices can continue to complete their apprenticeship, despite any break they have to take as a result of COVID-19. Investing in the support of high-quality apprenticeships is a vital part of supporting individual citizens, businesses and the economic recovery post COVID-19.

DfE is committed to working with employers and training contractors to mitigate the impact of this disruption and maintain the integrity of apprenticeships.

Funding Measures to Support Employers

The UK Government and the NI Executive put in place a package of funding measures to support employers, reduce redundancies and to avoid people being laid off without pay through the COVID-19 crisis including:

The impact of COVID-19 resulted in many business closures for a variety of reasons including a fall in demand, to protect customers and employees and by government mandate. It is hoped that as a result of the package of funding measures introduced by government that COVID-19 businesses closures will be temporary. However for some it may take time before they return to pre-pandemic levels of demand and production.

Employers are encouraged to continue to avail of the option of furloughing (granting a leave of absence) workers, including apprentices, via the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in the first instance and to utilise the support that is being made available by the UK Government and the NI Executive to help them and their employees to get through these difficult times.

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

To provide security for those employees, including apprentices, who found themselves unable to work, the UK Government announced on 20 March 2020 that it would introduce a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. The purpose of the Job Retention Scheme was to reduce redundancies, avoid people being laid off without pay and to ensure that business is ready to rebuild their businesses at the earliest opportunity. The scheme closed to new entrants on 10 June 2020, however those employees that employers have successfully claimed a previous grant for will be eligible for more grants under the scheme.

From 1 July, employers can bring furloughed employees back to work for any amount of time and any shift pattern, while still being able to claim CJRS grant for the hours not worked.

Through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme all UK employers have been able to access support to continue paying part of their employees’, including apprentices, salary for those PAYE employees that would otherwise have been laid off during this crisis.  From 1 August 2020, employers will be asked to contribute towards the cost of their furloughed employees’ wages until the scheme closes on 31 October 2020. Please refer to the guidance for Changes to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Employers will continue to able to choose to top up employee wages above the 80 per cent total and £2,500 cap for the hours not worked at their own expense if they wish. Employers will have to pay their employees for the hours worked.

Further information on the scheme and what it means to be a furloughed worker is available through the following links:

Making an Apprentice Redundant as a result of COVID-19

It is hoped that as a result of the package of support measures introduced by the UK Government and the NI Executive that the need for redundancy will be minimized. Employers are encouraged to continue to consider the option of furloughing (granting a leave of absence) workers, including apprentices, via the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in the first instance.

Redundancy should only be considered once all other options have been exhausted. Employers are urged to consider the package of support available and the benefit of having furloughed apprentices on standby ready to help rebuild their business at the earliest opportunity.

If, despite the availability of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and other support, you find your business in the unfortunate situation of having to make apprenticeship redundancies the normal legal provisions apply including:

  • steps to minimise the number of compulsory redundancies
  • carry out an appropriate consultation with employees and their representative
  • issuing appropriate Notices and Statutory Redundancy Payments

Further information on providing a fair and transparent redundancy process and mitigation against the risk of tribunal claims can be found at the following link:

If you have made an apprentice redundant the training contractor will be required to remove them from the apprenticeship programme. If your apprentice is aged 16-17 they may be able to continue their knowledge based qualification with their training contractor (or a different training contractor) as part of the Training for Success Programme and would be entitled to receive a weekly Education Maintenance Allowance. You should discuss this with them when they are made redundant.

Interruption to Apprenticeship Training - Suspension of face to face training

As a result of the COVID-19 crisis and the measures taken to protect the public and reduce the spread of the virus your apprentice’s off-the-job training will have been interrupted or changed.

All face to face apprenticeship training has been suspended since Friday 20 March 2020. However there has been a partial reopening of Further Education (FE) colleges and work-based-learning providers to support the awarding of vocational qualifications this summer.

It may be possible for your apprentice to continue learning whilst furloughed subject to agreement of employer, apprentice and training contractor and whether e-learning is available from the training contractor and taking into consideration HMRC advice on pay.

The training contractor will carry out required reviews of apprenticeship progress during this period including engagement with you and your apprentice.

Apprentices unable to attend work

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and the advice and measures put in place to slow the spread of the virus and protect the public, an apprentice’s attendance at work may be disrupted because of illness, caring responsibilities or operational disruption to your business.

To support businesses who are paying sick pay to their employees the UK government has announced that it will bring forward legislation to allow small and medium-sized businesses and employers to reclaim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) paid for sickness absence due to COVID-19. The scheme will be open to all UK employers who had fewer than 250 employees on the 28 February 2020.

Further information on the scheme can be found at the link below:

The Health and Safety of apprentices, and all other employees in the workplace, must remain a priority. 

Information and advice about taking care of your mental health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 outbreak can be found at nidirect website.

Increased demand in Sectors due to COVID-19

As a result of a rapid change in customer requirements and practices some businesses have experienced a significant increase in demand or have had to adapt their business practices and operating model to meet demands created by COVID-19. For some businesses this change will be temporary but for others the change in customer practices may be longer lasting.

The business benefits of employing an apprentice include introducing new fresh talent, meeting your business requirements, developing loyal and motivated staff, realising increased productivity and improving business competitiveness for business growth

Apprenticeships are key to supporting businesses to meet skills needs and grow the wider economy and employers should consider how apprenticeship programmes can support and contribute to the development and growth of their businesses and to support the recovery of the economy post COVID-19.

Frequently asked questions and further information

These questions and answers will be updated regularly in line with advice from the UK Government, the NI Executive and the Public Health Authority.

  1. My business has closed due to COVID-19 – what happens to my apprentice/s?

Apprentices are treated the same as all other employees and are covered under the UK Governments Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Employers are encouraged to continue to utilise the support that has been made available by the UK Government and the NI Executive if they have had to close their business as a result of COVID-19.

Where apprentices are furloughed (granted a leave of absence) the apprentice should discuss how best they can continue their learning with you as their employer and with the training contractor.

  1. If my apprentice needs to self-isolate, what will happen to their apprenticeship?

Apprenticeship programmes, ApprenticeshipsNI and Higher Level Apprenticeships, have been designed to be responsive to changes in apprentices’ circumstances, for example during a period of illness. If an apprentice needs to self-isolate, please talk to the training contractor about the best way to continue with the apprenticeship.

Options include:

  • an increase in e-learning;
  • re-scheduling planned assessment activity for a later date; and
  • a pause in apprenticeship to be resumed at a later date.

You may also be eligible for support if your apprentice is receiving sick pay as a result of COVID-19. The UK government has announced that it will bring forward legislation to allow small-and medium-sized businesses and employers to reclaim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) paid for sickness absence due to COVID-19. The scheme opened to all UK employers who had fewer than 250 employees on the 28 February 2020.

  1. My apprentice needs to take care of a family member. Can they continue their apprenticeship learning at home?

Yes, this may be possible subject to agreement of employer, apprentice and training contractor and whether e-learning is available from the training contractor. If you and your apprentice are in agreement please contact the training contractor to discuss the options.

  1. I am asking my apprentice to take a period of unpaid leave. What happens to the apprenticeship during that time?

Rather than making staff redundant or asking them to take unpaid leave employers are encouraged to continue to consider the option of furloughing (granting a leave of absence) workers and utilising the support that is available through the Coronavirus Job Retention and Scheme.

When an apprentice is furloughed they can continue their directed training remotely with their training contractor, or if this is not possible, take a break from the apprenticeship and resume when they return to work. Having employees ready and waiting to return to work will help you to regrow your business at the earliest opportunity.

  1. My apprentice has taken up other work while furloughed, what do I need to do?

If you have placed an apprentice on furlough, and that furloughed apprentice has opted to take up some employment elsewhere, you do not need to do anything differently in regards of the 80 per cent payments to that worker and the corresponding claims to be made from HMRC.

In general, the hours the furloughed apprentice spends working through additional employment will not affect the grant paid to your company, however this will depend on their employment contract. 

  1. Due to business continuity measures all staff are required to be available at their usual place of work. How can my apprentice continue their learning?

If your apprentice is unable to attend their scheduled learning events, there may be options available to you and you should discuss with your training contractor representative as soon as possible. It may be possible for your apprentice to engage in digital or distance learning at a convenient time within their contracted working hours. If there is no suitable alternative directed training can be paused until normal working patterns resume.

  1. I am having to temporarily move staff into different and/or business critical roles that aren’t related to their apprenticeship. What happens to their apprenticeship?

It is hoped that apprentices can promptly resume their apprenticeship and continue to successful completion at the earliest opportunity. Apprenticeships have been designed to be responsive to changes in apprentices’ circumstances, if there has been a change to their job role this should be discussed with the apprentice and training contractor regarding the best way to accommodate a change of role into an alternative apprenticeship or pause the existing apprenticeship.

If the apprentice's move becomes permanent, you should liaise with your training contractor to discuss apprenticeship options.

  1. What do I do if I think my apprentice is not well enough to work (especially in a health setting)?

The Health and Safety of apprentices, and all other employees, must remain priority.

Employers should follow the government's guidance for employers and businesses on Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Further Apprenticeship Queries

For queries not covered by this guidance, please contact Apprenticeships Delivery and Performance Branch at the following email addresses:

apprenticeships@economy-ni.gov.uk or higherlevelapprenticeships@economy-ni.gov.uk

 

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