Leadership & Productivity

Apprentices in action: Bridging the skills gap with on the job training

8 min read

10 November 2017

Former special projects journalist

Apprenticeships have gained a lot of press coverage in recent years, with many headlines wondering aloud if they could be the answer to solving the skills gap in the UK.

Apprenticeships offer young people the chance to get a step on the career ladder and great job training – with lots of perks for small business employers too.

Apprentices and on the job training: An overview

An apprenticeship is a role that combines elements of job training and paid work. They have gained a lot of press coverage in recent years, with many headlines wondering aloud if they could be the answer to solving the skills gap in the UK.

Apprenticeships have also gained a lot of support from government, and this year the apprenticeship levy came into force.

The levy is a compulsory tax that employers have to pay to help fund the delivery of apprenticeships. Only those employers with a £3m+ pay bill have to contribute, but they have to cough up regardless of whether or not they employ an apprentice.

If a business has to pay the levy, the amount payable is 0.5 per cent of its pay bill – and it will receive a £15,000 allowance to offset against the levy payments.

Those businesses that do not have to pay the levy can still benefit from the scheme – the government will fork out for 90 per cent of the cost of training.

So, apprenticeships are a cheap way for businesses to recruit enthusiastic new talent to receive on the job training, in theory.

We spoke to some businesses that have hired apprentices to see what they made of the scheme:

It can help businesses recruit for role where there is a skills gap. Where there is a lot of competition for skilled workers, smaller businesses often miss out – recruiting is expensive, and often bigger businesses can offer more attractive salaries.

“Without a doubt, we have struggled to hire individuals who are either skilled in marketing or have a willingness to learn new skills,” said Gareth Jones, commercial manager at Kit Out My Office.

“The primary reason is simply cost. That’s why we’ve opted for filling roles throughout the business, from marketing to customer service and production, with apprentices.”

Apprenticeships can help raise morale and employee retention. An apprentice is essentially on a course, so there is an added incentive to stick around to complete the full apprenticeship:

“Apprenticeships have been a particularly useful tool for us when it comes to recruiting for the kitchen. We work with Bournemouth and Poole College on their Specialised Chefs Apprenticeship – this is a three-year course and we currently have three chefs here all at different stages. By having them here on an apprenticeship, we know they are getting good-quality training and the vocational aspect fully prepares them for the world of work,” said Sarah Hoyle, personnel and development manager at The Grand Hotel.

“At the Grand we also use apprenticeships as a retention tool. We want our staff to stay a long time, but everyone needs motivation and stimulation and working towards a qualification is a great way to do this. We currently have nine existing employees all studying an apprenticeship through the local college.”

However, there is always another side to the coin, and there are some disadvantages to be considered too.

It takes a certain level of commitment to take on an apprentice – they will be new to the industry and often to the whole world of work. They may need more guidance than other employees:

“Lack of commercial skill is always an obstacle with apprentices and a far greater amount of time and training is required to bring them up to speed in that sense. Some employers see it as a cost-effective recruitment route, but there’s a greater amount of investment needed into the career development of an apprentice,” said McGruer.

“Hiring apprentices can be a challenge for a company that doesn’t already have a training structure in place. The mentoring and coaching involved requires extensive knowledge of the business, patience and time – but the investment can be truly rewarding.”

In addition, although many young people take on an apprenticeship because they are excited to work in a particular industry, sometimes it can be hard for them to know what they are getting into:

“There can sometimes be different challenges when you hire an apprentice – a lot of apprentices are young, and make a commitment before later changing their mind. I don’t blame them – it is so difficult at the age of 16 to know what career you want to go into and it is a big decision,” said Hoyle.

“Taking the risk and funding the apprenticeship to then to have someone change their mind is quite difficult. We combat this by offering people the opportunity to take a work experience placement here first, to come and try it out before they commit to anything, so they can decide if a career in hospitality is really for them.

Overall, however, the businesses we spoke to were of one mind when it came to whether or not they would recommend the scheme to other businesses:

“I would recommend considering the employment of apprentices to other businesses, as it has worked well for us at The Grand. If there is an area of your business where a skills shortage is a real issue, as it is with chefs, an apprenticeship scheme could really help,” said Hoyle.

“Apprentices are often individuals who want to kick-start their career, which means they’re eager to learn and succeed. Every business wants employees with those qualities, so I would never tell someone to dismiss hiring an apprentice,” said Jones.

If you are interested in hiring an apprentice to help your business grow, you can read more here: https://www.gov.uk/take-on-an-apprentice.

This article is part of a wider campaign called the Scale-up Hub, a section of Real Business that provides essential advice and inspiration on taking your business to the next level. It’s produced in association with webexpenses and webonboarding, a fast-growing global organisation that provides cloud-based software services that automate expenses management and streamline the employee onboarding process.