Apprenticeships: opportunities for small businesses

The disappointing take up of apprenticeships has been in the news recently but despite the perceived challenges Angela Roberts explores the opportunities they can present to small businesses

It is disappointing that the take up of apprentices, since the apprenticeship levy was introduced, has not been as great as expected: CIPD research in August 2019 showed that since the levy’s introduction, apprenticeship starts have fallen considerably; the first two quarters of 2018-19 saw a lower number of apprenticeships starts than in the same period during 2015-16 – before the introduction of the levy. For many young people, apprenticeships are practical alternatives to university. It is also a great way for employees of all ages to gain the training and support they need and to develop in their current roles and their future careers.

For school leavers, the opportunity to work and train whilst gaining a qualification within a chosen field is ideal. For those who are not academically minded but have great practical skills and are keen to use these, a level 2 or level 3 apprenticeship following GCSEs provides a real incentive and motivation to develop a career without being ‘stuck’ in the school or college environment. As an apprentice they still have the opportunity to grow, develop their knowledge and gain a qualification. They can do this at their own pace and tailor it to their specific areas of interest which is a great starting point to a real career. For school leavers, who have slogged through A-levels or an equivalent level 3 qualification but don’t want to go on to further academic study and incur the costs of university, an apprenticeship provides a very viable alternative. Ultimately, an apprentice can still gain a recognised degree level qualification whilst gaining valuable work experience that many university graduates lack. Not to mention the fact that they are being paid to learn and are getting a head start on their career path.

For current employees and their employers, apprenticeships provide an ideal and cost effective way to gain professional or technical qualifications and structured on the job learning.   

One of the key elements of an apprenticeship is reflection and continuous personal development; this provides the foundation for lifelong learning which is so important in the ever changing world of work.

So why has the take up not been as expected? Maybe the message hasn’t got out there yet – are parents and school leavers seeing an apprenticeship as a worthwhile alternative to university? Are they fully aware of the benefits of completing an apprenticeship and do they realise the level of qualification they will attain?

Could it be that employers are not seeing the opportunity or positives of hiring an apprentice to a role – is it the fear of the cost, or the bureaucracy, particularly for small businesses, that will be involved? Is there enough information out there about the practicalities of hiring and supporting an apprentice to enable employers to make an informed decision and take that step?

Do employers know how to find apprentices and do they have the resources to do so? Do they have to find their own apprentice or rely on a college or training provider – which comes first the person or the apprenticeship?  Is there enough advice and support available to particularly smaller employers, who form the bedrock of the economy, on how to find the right apprenticeship and the right apprentice?

Could it be that apprenticeship opportunities are not widely advertised and promoted within schools as career pathway for school leavers of all ages?

Is it supply or demand? Are would-be apprentices unable to find an apprenticeship, or are employers who are looking to take on an apprentice unable to find the right person?

Do employers recognise the great opportunity apprenticeships provide for developing their current employers? Or is there too much of a stigma attached to being an apprentice that employees are unwilling to take on the apprenticeship? Do small business see this as an option for them or are they concerned about the resource implications?

Having worked with a number of employers looking to take on apprentices, and with a number of apprentices, I can see some of these are a reality.

Employers don’t automatically think “this role could be filled by an apprentice”; they do worry about the paperwork, the time and support they will need to put in to make the apprenticeship a success. Often, they are unclear how to go about finding an apprentice, the right apprenticeship and the right training provider. On the whole, they don’t seem to have given too much thought to offering apprenticeship opportunities to their current employees – the idea of having 20% of their time dedicated to off the job training does seem to be a barrier.

The apprentices I have worked with are generally very positive about the opportunity and enjoy the ability to apply their learning in the workplace.  They do struggle with some of the paper work though.

Apprenticeships are a great opportunity for small businesses to attract and develop high quality candidates who may not have the specific skills required from day one but who can learn on the job, making a valuable contribution to the business whilst gaining technical knowledge from completing a recognised qualification. I would highly recommend looking into apprenticeships to any small business. A good starting point is the government website which covers everything you need to know to get started.

Author: Angela Roberts set up in the HR Consultancy in 2013 and has over 20 years’ experience in senior roles within HR support across different sectors. 


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