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Lessons from National Apprenticeship Week

Apprenticeships allow companies to build a new employee from the ground up. What else did we learn from National Apprentice Week?
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In French apprendre means “to learn”. It was National Apprenticeship Week last this week, a chance to focus on the benefits of apprenticeships to employers. The Coalition has been pressing for more apprenticeships, perhaps understandably with the rise in university tuition fees.

Apprenticeships aren’t about keeping unemployment figures down and the government happy. If handled well, apprentices offer real value to a firm. 

First of all, university is not for everyone. Three years focusing on theory does not suit the practical minds of many – particularly when it comes to engineering, plumbing, accountancy, business, IT and other areas which are all about hands-on skills.

An apprenticeship allows a firm to build a new employee from the ground up. They have not had their mind filled with academia, nor have they developed the opinion that having a degree entitles them to everything under the sun (as happens with some graduates). 

We regularly hear from employers that UK students are educating themselves out of some of the best jobs by feeling they have to go to university, and end up doing a worthless subject just to have a degree in something. Some apprenticeship programmes lead to a degree level award anyway, so the candidate gets the best of both worlds.

Employers like the idea of a practical education. In February 2011 a survey of 500 companies gave a clear response that employers prefer apprentices to graduates. Part of it is instilling your way of doing things. 

That’s so important for business culture and consistency of quality. I am regularly heard muttering things like “while our trainees are learning their trade it’s my way or the highway”. Once they know what they’re doing I am happy to allow them to operate far more freely, knowing that having my style drummed into them early on means they’ll know how to do things correctly and will do so, even though they will develop their own style of doing it.

Building a new employee from the ground up via an apprenticeship can also help you build in loyalty through a programme of development and the employer reaps the rewards of the long term involvement, even if he or she leaves the firm sooner than hoped. Even graduate development programmes sometimes fail to build in a great deal of loyalty, as some candidates feel they have a degree behind them and that after their training they could go straight off and find a different firm.

Recruiting apprentices can reduce recruitment time and costs. If you recruit for attitude and are prepared to train for skills I find you have a good chance of creating an excellent team. I do have some clients who roll their eyes and sigh when the apprentices are mentioned. It’s true, some of them are young, have youthful high spirits and can be a bit gormless sometimes. Well, who wasn’t when they were 17 or 18? They’ll sober up soon enough and if they’re prepared and able to learn, that’s the main thing.

But apprentices no longer need be exclusively young people. Older employees may well be even more grateful for an opportunity to move from a relatively unskilled role onto a much more challenging career path.

Despite what we hear about the standard of education in this country, there is a big pool of talent available nearing the end of A-Level or equivalent, many of whom will be concerned about higher education and what they should do next. 

Given how early the nightmarish UCAS process starts, employers who get in early by going into schools and colleges throughout the two “further education” years to advertise the kind of people they’re looking for and what they have to offer, will get the best pick.

Business needs good people and employers have to work hard to get them. Learning on the job suits a lot of people, and with a structured training/work programme both employer and apprentice could well benefit equally well from the arrangement.

Kate Russell is the MD of Russell HR Consulting.

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