The Government has announced a raft of measures to challenge the "outdated view" of apprenticeships among small businesses to encourage more firms to take on apprentices.
Skills minister John Hayes has outlined a number changes designed to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) offer more apprenticeships, including greater access to funding and the introduction of standards for training providers supplying services to SMEs.
The move follows recommendations made in Jason Holt's review of apprenticeships in SMEs, which looked at what could be done to encourage smaller firms to offer more schemes.
Holt, a jewellery entrepreneur commissioned by the Government to carry out the review, explained: "While apprenticeships offer undoubted growth opportunities for businesses, not enough SMEs are taking advantage.
"This is because they have an outdated view of apprenticeships, are often in the dark and frequently do not receive the specific training provision their apprenticeships need."
Under the new measures, the Government will:
- work with people who provide advice to SMEs, such as lawyers and accountants, to promote apprenticeships to these firms;
- provide better information and increase availability of training for apprentices and investigate how to give SMEs a greater say in developing appropriate training provision;
- agree standards for the provision of training to SMEs and the consequences of not meeting them; and
- improve the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers (AGE) scheme by revising eligibility restrictions, making it simpler to use and expanding access to the funding.
Business secretary Vince Cable said: "Only a small minority of SMEs currently employ apprentices. Many are missing out on an effective way of growing and up-skilling their businesses.
"We hope that the measures announced today will make a difference by raising awareness of the benefits of apprenticeships amongst SMEs and making it as easy as possible for businesses to take on an apprentice."
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and manufacturing organisation the EEF welcomed today's announcement, particularly the changes that will be made to the AGE funding.
Under the measures announced, the AGE scheme will be opened up to employers that have not employed an apprentice in the previous 12 months and will also be expanded to firms with up to 1,000 employees. Previously, AGE was only available to employers with up to 250 workers.
Jim Bligh, head of labour market policy at the CBI, commented: "SMEs are a major untapped source of apprenticeships, so it's good that this review shows how complex the current process has become for smaller firms to deal with.
"Making sure SMEs realise the value of taking on apprentices is critical, and incentives like the newly expanded Apprenticeship Grant for Employers can make all the difference."
He added that small firms also need better local advice and systems in place to get them started in providing on-the-job training for new apprentices.
The EEF was also positive about the attempts to encourage more small firms to take on apprentices.
Tim Thomas, head of employment and skills at the EEF, said: "The manufacturing industry has a long and proud history of investing in apprenticeship programmes, but was disadvantaged by the requirements of the AGE scheme.
"Relaxing the requirements in the way the Government has outlined will allow businesses to take on more apprentices and offer these invaluable opportunities to young people. Although the grant is relatively small in comparison to the overall cost of delivering manufacturing apprentices, it will go some way to incentivising employers to take on an additional young apprentice."
He added that if the Government wants to encourage more people to undertake apprenticeships and more employers to offer them, it must address issues such as careers advice, the status of vocational education and the "regulatory burden that still prevents many small businesses from taking on apprentices".