Opinion

Apprenticeships are a vital way for SMEs to attract the workforce of the future

5 min read

31 January 2019

SMEs which value their apprentice programme will reap the greatest rewards and stand a much better chance of retaining their people once those apprenticeships come to an end.

When I was a youngster, life seemed more straightforward and secure – after leaving school you got a job, worked until pension age and then took up fishing.

A job – and most certainly a trade or profession – was generally considered to be for life and people tended to remain loyal to their employers.

Since those days the future has become an awful lot more unpredictable. The vagaries of the global economy, the game-changer that is the internet revolution and the uncertainties created by the recent recession have dramatically altered the employment landscape.

A new job market

The biggest impact seems to have been felt by the so-called millennials, with a poll revealing that 28 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds have already had more than five jobs.

Your average millennial has clocked up 3.4 jobs compared to 5.9 for the over-55s, according to research conducted by Tempo.

However, they aren’t just dodging around the job market but spearheading a new trend which represents a real change in how the up-and-coming generation views the world of work.

It’s not a matter of eyeing up the next big opportunity, but rather seeking to develop a variety of skills, which will allow them to not just switch jobs, but careers.

According to the poll, which questioned more than 2,000 UK workers, two-thirds of under-35s want to move sectors, compared to just 39% of those in the 35 to 55 age group.

This signifies a move away from the traditional fixed career track, with people adopting a portfolio approach – becoming more adaptable and always eager to try something new.

SMEs already face a challenge when it comes to recruiting ambitious and tech-savvy millennials. They are seeking an opportunity to grow, with employers becoming stepping stones, rather than remaining in a career for life.

That, combined with the looming Brexit-powered restrictions on employing overseas workers, may well create a real headache for many a growing business.

I believe one way that SMEs can engage millennials at an early stage is through a properly thought out apprenticeship programme.

Apprentices should never be used as an excuse for cheap labour, but must be engaged, motivated and, above all, feel valued. That way they will be invested in the business and will be more eager to learn and develop.

SMEs can’t prevent people moving on for higher wages or a promotion, but they can provide millennials with a reason to stay by creating a more stimulating environment, developing a learning-based culture and clearly signposting a pathway to progression.

Those SMEs which value their apprentice programme will reap the greatest rewards and stand a much better chance of retaining their people once those apprenticeships come to an end.

Attracting and retaining millennials is not always about financial reward, but about creating the right workplace culture.

This is reflected by the fact that more than eight in ten over-55s say the size of their wage packet is one of their top three motivations when it comes to a job, as opposed to 67% of millennials.

Meanwhile, 46% of women say flexible working is the most important factor, as opposed to 29% of men.

Millennial challenges to SMEs

The new millennial approach to work presents challenges and opportunities to SME owners – to take a long, hard look at their business and create a culture open to innovation and challenge.

This generation is also ambitious, take risks and, due to their outlook on life, possess a greater entrepreneurial spirit than their forebears.

In fact, a survey carried out by bean counters Deloitte last year found that 70% of millennials are considering working for themselves at some point in their careers – which is encouraging for this country’s entrepreneurial spirit going forward.

I may be from a generation, which held a completely different attitude towards work, but I applaud the new millennial spirit, based upon learning, developing new skills and seizing fresh opportunities.

The challenge is for firms to adapt to this new culture, while retaining as many skills in the business as possible to generate a sustainable future.

Even experienced fellas like me can learn from this fresh way of thinking and others can too, otherwise they might as well pack up their flask and fishing rods and head down the canal!