How do you get an instant injection of ideas, energy and thinking into your business? Answer: get an apprentice. After being the poor relation of higher education for so long, apprenticeships are coming into their own as a win-win for the young person and employer as well as providing a benefit to the wider world of business. A recent survey by the CBI/EDI Education & Skills found that 82 per cent of employers say employability is the single most important consideration when looking for staff. Those who successfully complete apprenticeships can put a massive tick in this box and are providing an increasingly valuable pipeline of workplace-ready people to UK businesses.
Thankfully, we are moving away from the days when apprenticeships were seen as a form of cheap labour. In a tough economic climate, apprenticeships do provide a cost-effective way for small businesses to plug their skills gaps but there is nothing wrong with that as long as the employer delivers on their side of the deal and trains and invests in the apprentice.

There were several reasons why we decided to introduce apprentices into the company. As a recruitment business, we have challenged many of the conventions of the industry. As a young business we thought we would challenge the way we work, too, by making apprentices a core part of our flexible workforce. We were also keen to give something back in the bigger picture, given that we could see a whole generation of young people in danger of falling by the wayside as far as career opportunities were concerned.
We also knew that by demonstrating we wanted to be part of this reciprocal relationship, it marked us out as an employer of choice which was extremely important to us as a recruitment business. Already it is helping to build our employer brand and raise our profile with one of our apprentices a finalist in the KEIBA apprenticeship of the year awards.
To ensure the apprenticeship works for both sides and runs smoothly, it is important to have the necessary procedures and policies in place as an employer. Having ensured all of the housekeeping/hygiene factors are taken care of, you must then ensure there is a structured programme in place for the apprentice’s development.
Our approach is to teach them how to do one thing really well and move them to the next task. If we have a skills gap we need to fill, we train them to perform the role and gradually give them more responsibility in it. One of our apprentices required training and experience in organising events as part of her Level 2 NVQ in Business Administration. So, one of her first tasks was to organise our company go-karting outing. She’s proven to be so good at planning that she now arranges all of our events, which number around 20 across the year.

One of the most refreshing and rewarding aspects of working with apprentices is their enthusiasm and willingness to learn. They relish the opportunity to acquire new skills so across the 12-month period we try to ensure they are exposed to a variety of skills and a constantly evolving working environment. They tend to be tech-savvy, which suits our business, and often bring new ideas and thinking that we may not have arrived at.

There are challenges to recruiting apprentices into the workforce. Naturally, they will not have the maturity of older employees and will sometimes bring their personal lives to work. They may also exhibit fragility at times and may be insecure about their abilities in this, their first job. As well as their employer, you also have to think like a parent or guardian. Ideally, they should be assigned a mentor who they can go to and confide in if they have any problems or who acts as a sounding board. Conversely, this immaturity also has certain benefits: they are unlikely to try to manipulate situations or behave politically.

It is vital though for an employer to recognise the responsibility that goes with having an apprentice. If something goes wrong this early in their career, it can put them off working in a particular industry or environment forever. How they are managed is therefore crucial and you have to be able to empathise with them. Those with high emotional intelligence levels tend to be better at this as they can pick up on nuances and be more sensitive to behavioural patterns that might indicate there are some underlying problems.
While they will challenge you, the benefits of having apprentices in the workforce far outweigh any downsides and I find them a delight to have in the workforce. Sadly, there are still instances of bad practice when it comes to the treatment of apprentices. Some employers have taken on people at 17 years and got rid of them when they reach the age of 18 because at this point they must make a one-off payment to the Government of £600. This makes my blood boil especially since the apprentice will be midway through their NVQs at this point.

Apprenticeships have always been relevant and important to the UK workforce. The shift in thinking away from higher education qualifications being the be-all and end-all towards more emphasis on employability skills though, is acting as a catalyst for heightening their relevance. As a small business owner, it makes a huge amount of sense to explore what benefits they can offer and, hopefully, like me, you’ll be glad you did.

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