HR & Management

Why apprenticeships are gold for SMEs

7 min read

13 March 2013

Hayley Fisher explains how her SME has successfully implemented an apprenticeship scheme.

National Apprenticeship Week is upon us. This event is designed to celebrate apprenticeships and the positive impact they have on individuals, businesses and the economy.

We will be celebrating this with our own apprentices as a successful growing business that has recently embraced the scheme. However, it seems that we are somewhat of a rarity. Despite 99 per cent of businesses belonging to the SME category, there has only been a one per cent take up of apprentices within this market.

As we were, many SMEs are simply unaware of how to go about recruiting and training apprentices and probably won’t have considered how this option could help their resource and succession planning. Indeed, it wasn’t until Hawk Training got in touch that we realised the potential for ourselves. I am keen that other employers of our size should know that the scheme provides a cost-effective employment strategy and provides young, inexperienced people with a good introduction into working life to help them further their career alongside studying for an NVQ.

In the last year we recruited three apprentices who work across three different departments of the business: help desk, pension administration and IT. They have proved to be an invaluable addition and have helped us assist and advise our clients when developing their own apprenticeship schemes. 

Some of the benefits we have seen include:

  • Fresh perspective: Having young, enthusiastic people can breathe fresh new ideas and ways of thinking into an organisation;
  • Diverse experience: Apprentices studying alongside their on-the-job experience will be bringing to the business the most up-to-date practises and theory and applying them to their work;
  • Hone employees’ training skills: Although each apprentice has a line manager who acts as their first point of contact and provides primary support and task management, the apprentices also give team members who wouldn’t usually mentor or teach other employees the chance to hone these skills; and
  • Easy to adopt: Having partnered with Hawk Training to implement and facilitate the scheme, we didn’t have to introduce lots of new procedures and administrative processes as the apprentices have fitted in with our normal framework and day-to-day procedures of the business.

Apprenticeships are increasingly being viewed by schools and colleges as a viable alternative to university for students who want to gain work-related qualifications and vocational experience without incurring the cost of university fees. However, despite the high number of young people keen to enrol on a scheme, and the limited number of spaces, we have struggled to fill one of our apprentice vacancies. With cultural fit as our main consideration, this process takes time. It is also not helped by the fact that strong apprentices are in demand and are snapped up quickly. As with any recruitment method, there are some important considerations to be made.

Recruitment process 

Typically, an apprentice will be the least experienced candidate a company will recruit and will have to be guided throughout the recruitment and induction process. We have had an experience where a young person has amended the dates of work experience on their CV, following advice from their friends, to make them seem more attractive as a candidate. This was not because of an intention to deceive but simply from naivety. Depending on your company policy, it may not be possible to then consider that person for a placement.

Costs

Although the apprentice minimum wage level is £2.65 per hour, you need to investigate whether paying at this level will enable you to compete for talent with other employers in your local area. We have chosen to pay more because of the need to fit in with our reward strategy and because pay at this level doesn’t attract candidates in London where we are based.

Changing attitudes 

Basic office behaviour, such as dress code, use of mobile phones and the way we communicate with others needs to be taught and enforced as apprentices are unlikely to have previous experience of an office environment.

Adopting an age-appropriate attitude

Bear in mind that your company culture may need to change. For example, when considering small rewards for good work, a sixteen-year-old cannot be presented with a bottle of champagne. The same care needs to be taken when organising social and company events.

Building confidence through responsibility

“Don’t replace mum.” It can be easy to act as a parent figure with apprentices but it’s important to let them make their own decisions and encourage responsibility for their own work and behaviour.

A business of any size can take on an apprentice. Although larger organisations may be seen to have an ideal support structure, we are testament to the fact that the scheme can easily slot into the standard recruitment framework of any business. Remember that the culture of your business is an important factor to maintain, so the right fit is key. However, with the right level of mentoring and cultural, age-appropriate aspects considered, we have found that there are many business benefits to be gained.

Hayley Fisher is head of HR at Thomsons Online Benefits.