Trade sercrets: Building a case for apprenticeship

The number of apprenticeships is at a record level, with more than 270,000 people gaining valuable skills and qualifications to make them more knowledgeable and effective in their jobs.

Increased productivity, higher quality of work, increased competitiveness, greater staff retention, reduced costs and improved staff morale – not to mention government funding to help support the training – are just some of the tangible benefits enjoyed by businesses that employ apprentices.

Yet thousands of businesses are missing out on these benefits because they do not know about apprenticeships, do not appreciate the value of them, or do not think that apprentices are for them.

Last year, in his final review of skills in the UK, Lord Leitch highlighted the important role apprenticeships play in the training landscape by recommending that more emphasis be placed on them as a valuable way for employers to get the intermediate skills they need.

What is an apprenticeship?

The word ‘apprenticeship’ conjures up an image of a bygone era, where skills were passed from one generation to the next. A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as inexpensive labour in exchange for providing them with training in the craft.

Today, apprenticeships retain the focus on learning a skill or craft through practical experience in the workplace, but that is where the similarity ends. Apprentices now learn through a combination of on- and off-the-job education and training.

The apprenticeship framework is a mix of separate qualifications, namely a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ), a technical certificate, and key skills (the essential skills that learners must have to support them in their job, including communication, language, and IT).

Apprenticeships run at a variety of levels and there are more than 160 different apprenticeship frameworks available across 80 sectors. They cover everything from core business functions, such as engineering, construction, manufacturing and production, media, retail, hospitality, transport and automotive, to business support functions, such as business administration, accounting, sales and customer service.

Apprenticeships are funded wholly or partly by the government, through the Learning and Skills Council in England.

Who benefits?

Apprenticeships are an all-round, win-win for business, individuals and the economy.

Compass Group, for example, is the largest food service organisation in the UK and Ireland. In a sector with traditionally high employee turnover rates, it has seen recruitment and training costs fall significantly because its apprentices are more likely to stay. They are also more likely to progress into management roles, leading to additional savings.

Employers such as BAE Systems, Bentley Motors, British Gas, Carillion and NG Bailey also report extremely high staff retention rates of between 85% and 95%, all of which are higher than their sector averages.

They claim this is because apprentices who start their careers with them have a higher commitment to the overall culture and aims of the business. This in turn brings an additional benefit of reduced recruitment costs.

Both BAE Systems and British Gas report that their productivity has increased. British Gas says its apprentices are, on average, 25% more productive and qualify three months sooner compared to externally trained engineers, while BAE Systems says its apprentices are more self-motivated, ready to take the initiative and go into problem-solving mode, which reduces production time for the work they do by up to 25%.

Increasing competitiveness

According to members of the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network (AAN), employing apprentices also increases competitiveness.

Manufacturing company Kesslers International has seen a dramatic improvement in speed of response and customer service, and Nissan Europe says attracting, training and retaining high-quality apprentices helps the car maker keep its competitive edge.

Members also report they are seeing improved quality from apprentices. Evidence shows that apprentices at BAE Systems complete tasks correctly the first time at a rate of 85%, while with external recruits the rate drops to 60%.

Finally, the benefit for the individual is that they are earning while they are learning, so they don’t start working life in debt. There are also strong career progression routes within employers. Many organisations also support them through further education at university.

This all makes a compelling argument for apprenticeships, plus employers can obtain funding to help defray the cost of training. So why are more employers not involved?

Possibly because in the past, there was a lot of criticism of apprenticeships. The system has been considered too bureaucratic, the frameworks not ‘fit-for-purpose’, and the number of people completing their training was appallingly low.

Working together

But both the government and employers are working to improve the quality and effectiveness of apprenticeships. The programmes are now developed by Sector Skills Councils so are more closely aligned to employers’ needs, and much of the red-tape has been removed.

Completion rates have also increased to about 59%, from 24% in 2001 and 2002.

The latest annual report of the chief inspector for the Adult Learning Inspectorate also found that the quality of training by work-based training providers has improved dramatically.

Without doubt, high-quality training is essential to the successful completion of an apprenticeship. But another important factor is getting it right from the start. That means that everyone involved in the apprenticeship – individual, employer, training provider, and government skills bodies – know what is expected of them.

Bear this in mind, and apprenticeships can work – they are a cost-effective way to develop the skills that you need for continued growth and success.

Secrets of a successful apprenticeship

Mike Turner, chief executive of BAE Systems, has looked at the factors that can help improve completion rates for apprenticeships. Below is his list of ‘ingredients’ for a successful programme:

  • Provide a supportive working environment with good peer support, where training is seen to be valued.

  • Apprenticeships need to be valued at senior management level and throughout the business.

  • Induction programmes should include high-quality information about the obligations and expectations of apprenticeships, for young people, parents and employers.

  • Do not take apprentices off their programmes before all elements are completed.

  • Keep pay under review to ensure that it remains competitive and that you recognise progression and achievement at key stages.

  • High-quality training, whether in-house or externally sourced, is critical.

  • There must be effective communication and partnership between the key stakeholders managing the apprenticeship: training providers, the Learning and Skills Council, and the employer.

  • Identify ‘at risk’ apprentices early and put mechanisms in place to follow up recently departed trainees to monitor their career paths.

  • Ideally, there should be the opportunity for a permanent position on completion, subject to performance, which is clear to the apprentice from an early stage.

Get involved

The Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network is organising a series of events in 2007 to promote apprenticeships to employers. To register your interest, e-mail [email protected], call 08000 150 400, or go to the website.

Our expert: Roy Gardner

Sir Roy Gardner is chairman of Compass Group. Before joining the food service giant, he had been chief executive of utility at Centrica since 1997. He is a former chairman of Manchester United, managing director of GEC-Marconi and a director of GEC. Gardner is also president of lobby group Carers UK.

In April 2006, he was asked to lead the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network (AAN), a group of senior business leaders who are all committed to apprenticeships. Employers such as Compass Group, BAE Systems, Barratt Developments, Bentley Motors, British Gas, Carillion, CMC, Data Connection, Kesslers International, Mimosa healthcare, MITIE, NG Bailey, Nissan Europe, Tesco, Whitbread and Wm Armstrong are members of the AAN.

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