The fall of 3aaa and the world of apprenticeships

3aaa apprenticeships

This week we saw the apprenticeship “giant” 3aaa (otherwise known as Aspire, Achieve, Advance) go into administration.

Apprentices and employers across the country are affected, and around 500 staff are now looking for jobs.

As a former employee of 3aaa, I wanted to unpack this a bit.

Who were 3aaa?

Apprenticeships are run out of training providers; places of study where apprentices will come to do the study part of their apprenticeship. These are often large vocational colleges, from time to time actual employers (if they’re big enough), and sometimes apprenticeship companies like 3aaa, QA, Baltic and so on.

3aaa had academies across the country in most major cities. In an academy you would have one recruitment executive, who talks businesses into recruiting apprentices, the apprentice intake executive (my role), who talks young people into taking on apprenticeships and trains them up in employability skills, and the local manager. You’d also have trainers and instructors in each of the subjects who would teach the apprentices and guide them in their journey.

I said above that they are a “giant” as it’s being described as such in the media, but it never felt like we were giants. It felt like we were the struggling underdogs most of the time.

What was it like working there?

I joined when I had just come out of recruitment. I wanted to do recruitment things but actually help people and, ideally, work with young people. The role was pretty much perfect for my skills and was very meritocratic as on top of the £23k salary, I’d earn bonuses. We’ll get to that more in a moment.

The people who worked in the academies were some of the best people I’ve worked with. I would often go over to Peterborough and Norwich to learn from colleagues, and even help out in their recruitment when they were short staffed.

The role enabled me to genuinely help young people. I still get messages of thanks on LinkedIn and Twitter from people I trained up and gave confidence to, saying how well they are doing in their careers. My colleagues in my academy would often laugh at me as I would always, without fail, come away from interviewing a new candidate saying that they’re “a good kid”. They were truly all good kids.

You got bonuses though?

Yeah. It was both a good thing, as it was an excellent driver, but also a bad thing as you’re essentially making extra money off of young people. At the time I worked there, I would get extra money for placing young people into IT roles, so there was a lot of pressure to try to persuade young people to switch courses.

What’s more, you only got those bonuses when the apprentices were successful in getting jobs, so we had to keep businesses on board. One of my final breaking points before I left was after I had visited an employer who was clearly overworking apprentices, treating them horrifically and was a horrible horrible man. I came back to the office saying that I think we should find other roles for the apprentices in that company and not recruit for him again. My colleagues went behind my back and placed another young person in that company.

Competition from other similar providers was tough. There’s a government website where every apprenticeship has to be listed. A rival company would routinely call up the companies from our fresh adverts on there and try to poach our employers. While you can’t list the same vacancy twice, they would get around it by using a different framework. The employers couldn’t care less – whoever brought the best candidates won the contract. I even attended mass interviews before where candidates from different providers would spend 10 minutes with the employer. I was the only adult who had accompanied the candidates, and was there to give them last tips and confident boosts before they stepped forward – I was always in it for the young people, the bonuses were just a helpful extra.

3aaa are in trouble for potential fraud – did you see any of that?

No, not really. There was one time when there was a competition for getting as many apprentices started in one month, and we were a bit creative about that – for example, pushing employers to interview the candidates earlier so we could still fit it in the month. While this process was ridiculously wrong (there was a LOT of money at stake, £10,000 per academy; we would have split it between the three of us) it’s not to the extent of fraud.

Everyone in the academies always did things by the book and I trust 100% all of my ex collegaues. Things above our academy, at regional level, were always kept mysterious to us. We had a quite unpleasant regional director but I can’t say I can point my finger at anything I saw them do that would be wrong.

We’d hear magnificant stories of the wealth of Peter Marples, one of the company owners, though. Considering the lengths we had to go through to top up our salaries, hearing about him being so rich he’s invited to buy cars not open to the public was pretty disheartening.

What’s happening now?

People are speculating about the fraud being based on the money spent on sports sponsorships. If I’m honest, I don’t think that would be enough to bring it all down. My local train station’s name sign says “Cambridge North, home of Cambridge Regional College”. There are lots of ways that government-funded education establishments use money to advertise.

Predictably, other apprenticeship companies are trying to snag all the hanging apprentices and employers. Funding for an apprenticeship comes at the start of an apprenticeship, at 6 weeks and at completion. If they catch those left behind by 3aaa, they can get funding money without having been through the struggle of recruiting the apprentice and the employer in the first place. There are loads of people contacting employers and apprentices on Twitter trying to offer “help and advice” but actually just trying to swoop.

Apprentices and employers caught up in this should email 3.AAA@education.gov.uk, a government email address set up to give unbiased advice. Please don’t just go to that person cold calling you hoping for a swoop.

The world of apprenticeships

And this leads me on to why I could never go far in apprenticeships – it’s sales as much as it is education. As much as we helped the kids we also have to keep an eye on the pennies.

3aaa weren’t any worse than other providers. I’d heard horror stories from apprentices training at other places at how lowsy others could be. Perhaps the staff didn’t care as much as we did, perhaps they cut corners and blurred lines too. As long as the world of apprenticeships is a business world over an education world, there will be black marks on everyone involved.

Which is a massive shame. Apprenticeships are awesome – the jobs we secured for candidates were (mostly) fantastic and there are a number of shining stars who taught them how to meet their challenges. I personally think that students were really very lucky to study with some of the trainers we had there. Apprenticeship completers went off to do amazing things – it’s an excellent route into careers.

On the flipside, apprenticeships encourage employers to consider young people in a way they wouldn’t do otherwise. They allow small businesses to grow, employing fab new staff that help the company thrive.

The world of apprenticeships should be about these things, and deserves better than the lies, the money-grabbing sales teams and the corners cut to make a buck.

I decided to write this because I truly believe in apprenticeships, I worry and care about my ex-colleagues, and I am frustrated by the poachers out there to steal the hard work done by 3aaa employees.

The young people will be OK – the government will transfer their contracts to new providers easily. I hope my 500 ex-colleagues find jobs soon.

And anyone who has bright ideas to make apprenticeships better, I am very much all ears!

Comments

  1. What does “gone into administration” mean? This is not terminology I’m familiar with.
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