National Apprenticeship Week, which starts today, shines a spotlight on the youngest talent entering the workforce.
Organised by the government’s Education and Skills Funding Agency, the event aims to encourage young people to consider an apprenticeship as a way of getting into work and to show employers the benefits of running such a scheme.
For businesses there are some clear advantages. One in four customers would willingly pay more for goods and services offered by companies that hire apprentices, according to a 2015 study for the Centre for Economics and Business Research. The researchers estimated that UK firms adopting apprenticeship schemes could generate a combined £18 billion a year in additional consumer spending.
But a direct increase in sales revenue is not the only potential benefit, as Virgin Media has found since creating its apprenticeship scheme in 2008.
“At that time, we were at risk of not having enough skilled people to build, maintain and operate our ultra-fast network,” recalls Karen Handley, Virgin Media’s director of early careers. “We started with field-based apprenticeships. But, thanks to the success of that programme, we’re now recruiting and training apprentices to help us fill skills gaps across the business, in fields as diverse as HR, legal, finance and data analytics.”
The company has taken on 1,500 apprentices to date and plans to invest up to £4 million in the programme over the next two years.
An SME success story
For smaller businesses, the process of hiring young trainees can seem daunting. IoD member Barry Leahey, MD of playground equipment manufacturer Playdale, feared that his firm might not have enough time to dedicate to the task when the Cumbria-based company took on its first group of apprentices three years ago.
“At the time of our first intake, we were very sceptical about the impact it would have on productivity,” he admits. “But having fresh blood in here has helped massively. Our mindset has completely changed in terms of the value we thought an apprentice could bring.”
Yet not everyone is convinced. The number of UK apprenticeships started in November was 18 per cent down on the previous month, according to the most recent government figures, with critics pointing to the removal of financial carrots associated with the government’s apprenticeship levy. But the research also shows that apprentices do tend to be loyal to the employer that takes them on.
BT Group, which has recruited nearly 10,000 apprentices in the past three years alone, is one company that can attest to this. Ann Potterton, its head of apprenticeships, reports that more than 80 per cent of people who completed their apprenticeships with BT five years ago are still with the business, with most having had at least one promotion over that time.
“Apprenticeships have proved a great way for us to maintain a highly skilled workforce,” Potterton says. “There’s never been a better time to invest in an apprenticeship scheme to build your workforce for the future.”
You can read more about apprenticeships in the February/March 2020 issue of Director magazine
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