Apprenticeship levy a ‘raw deal’ for Northern Ireland business owners
Northern Ireland businesses are "missing out" on the benefits of the Apprenticeship Levy despite contributing millions of pounds to the fund.
Companies whose wage bills exceed £3m pay 0.5% of that into the fund as part of a scheme which was introduced last year.
The pot of money is available to all employers, including those with a wage bill of less than £3m who don't pay the levy. But distribution of the levy has not been finalised in Northern Ireland.
But Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, believes that many businesses, especially those in the retail sector, here are missing out on the benefits of the scheme.
And he challenged the Department for the Economy to do more with the revenues from the levy to help retailers. His comments come during National Apprenticeship Week which ends tomorrow.
Mr Connolly said retailers have paid millions "but received no extra support than in the previous year".
"And while Scotland has the Flexible Workplace Development Fund, which is meant to provide skills training, Northern Ireland has no way of ensuring that retailers or any employers of scale can get value for the money they are paying in despite the extra costs," he said.
Mr Connolly believes there needs to be a "radical overhaul" of the scheme to ensure Northern Ireland retailers aren't unfairly penalised.
"Sadly retailers in Northern Ireland are missing out on the opportunities elsewhere in the UK to invest in apprenticeships and training. Whilst businesses in England have a transparent account which they can access and direct towards training, equivalent businesses in Northern Ireland are paying what looks more and more like a tax on employing workers.
"Retail in particular looks to be getting a raw deal. Northern Ireland retailers will face another multi-million-pound tax bill this year for the levy with precious little in return. It doesn't have to be this way.
"There is an opportunity to consider a Flexible Workforce Development Fund to ensure employers needs are met.
"We believe that if done right apprenticeships are a strong gateway to a successful career that's why the department needs to remove the current barriers such as age to allow us to train our front-line colleagues."
Kirsty McManus, director of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, said: "Our members who are subject to paying the Apprenticeship Levy say that it is hindering growth plans and diminishing already low productivity levels. Although they are paying into the scheme, they are unable to claim the money back through government vouchers, as is the case elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
"In sectors where employers are finding it hard to fill vacancies, especially those that rely heavily on EU workers born outside the UK, the frustration is being felt even more keenly."
She added: "Additional money to pay for training in Northern Ireland would go a long way to addressing these recruitment issues by retraining and upskilling our existing workforce while also providing an avenue into sustainable employment for those currently out of work or preparing to leave school or higher education."