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Why we need to shout about apprenticeships


They're getting more and more popular, but we still need to raise awareness. Robert Bowyer talks apprenticeships.

Company-run apprenticeship schemes are by no means a new phenomenon. Why then, in an era when youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, are so few businesses offering this option to would-be employees? Despite 99% of all businesses being SMEs, the proportion of take-up of apprenticeships in smaller companies is, at best, just under 10%. It appears that many believe that the pitfalls of apprenticeships – time, resources, and no guarantee of retaining applicants – far outweigh the positives.

Despite the fact that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced earlier this month that the number of people collecting Jobseekers' Allowance in Britain is at its lowest level since 2009, the number of 16 to 24-year-olds out of work rose by 15,000 over the three months to June. Consequently, there are now 973,000 young people who are not in employment or training across the UK. But how can businesses best tap in to this unused talent?  

As part of an integrated training and development strategy, implementing an apprenticeship scheme is an ideal way for organisations to develop their talent pipelines. How then can a company do its best to ‘get it right’? Perhaps the initial step is to research possible service providers, particularly if your apprentices are going to be studying for a business related qualification. Innovative HR directors who are considering the possibility of implementing an apprenticeship scheme should contact the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) for advice. The organisation is able to put businesses in touch with training providers to facilitate apprenticeship programmes and offers guidance on the support available.

A good partner will be able to advise you not only on the likely costs involved, but also the advantages from a business leader’s point of view. More often than not, it is the reluctance on the part of a board or a business owner that can end all discussions. Apprenticeship facilitators will also be able to guide you on the level of time a new apprentice will likely have to spend on their studies. This is another factor that can influence a company’s decision making.

"As part of an integrated training and development strategy, implementing an apprenticeship scheme is an ideal way for organisations to develop their talent pipelines."

New higher level apprenticeships (which lead to an NVQ level 4 or foundation degree) are providing work-based routes to professional qualification, which in the past were traditionally restricted to graduates. Latest figures from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills show the number of higher apprenticeships in the public and private sectors rose by 67.6% to 3,700 between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years.

Supporting and mentoring apprentices is vital - an aspect that HR should be spearheading. But how can you be sure that the apprentices you choose are right for your business? Perhaps the obvious answer is you can’t. Much like any hire you can never be 100% sure that they will remain in the business long term. However, you can do your level best to be open and honest about the likely progression within the company and how you view the apprentice’s likely career path. 

Another aspect perhaps overlooked is the true cost of a scheme. Of course the investment includes time and money, but as long as there is a coherent plan this shouldn’t significantly impact the revenue stream of a business. But employers who are considering the benefits of investing in an apprenticeship scheme should research the help available.

For example, the Apprentice Grant for Employers (AGE), which is offered through the NAS was evaluated last year and improved to make it simpler and more accessible for companies considering recruiting apprentices. The scheme provides up to 40,000 grants of £1,500 to encourage and support employers taking on a young apprentice. In London SMEs are now able to apply for a £3,000 incentive payment through the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS).

These Government incentives seem to be working. According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a record 520,000 apprenticeship starts were delivered in the full 2011-12 academic year. This represents a 13.9% increase on 2010-11 figures. There were increases at all levels and all ages groups except those aged under 19, which decreased by 1.4%.  

Perhaps the message for organisations contemplating an apprenticeship scheme is act today before you are left behind. At a time where school leavers are shunning university and looking at other options, it is the companies that offer a realistic chance for career progression that will come out on top and drive the future of apprenticeships.

Apprentices can add real value to an organisation; not only in terms of developing a highly skilled workforce but also by boosting productivity and staff retention.

Robert Bowyer is director of Venn Group

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