We’ve trained dozens of apprentices for small businesses in the past year and have found there are six key things every business owner should consider

Modern apprenticeships are designed by business for business, and are a fantastic opportunity for SMEs to access government funding to ensure they have the right skills to thrive in the digital age. 

  • harness the energy and innovation of youth within a supported training programme
  • retain great talent looking to upskill or take on a new role in the business

1. Who can be an apprentice?

Modern apprenticeships are more akin to government-subsidised training – either for an existing employee or when bringing a new person in.

Upskill an existing employee

An apprenticeship can be used to upskill an employee in a role they’re already doing, or to transfer someone from elsewhere within the organisation who you want to retain. For example, if you need someone to do the books, consider putting your promising admin person on an accountancy apprenticeship. 

One of our clients had a really energetic and bright guy working in the warehouse and they wanted to keep him on. He had proven himself, and though he was interested in the digital marketing opening they had, he didn’t have the skills. So a digital marketing apprenticeship has allowed him to upskill, the business to retain a valued employee, and he has absolutely hit the ground running. Read about Arran.

If you see potential in somebody and you want to hang on to them, offering them a training opportunity is really attractive and builds company loyalty. 

Bring in new talent – with support

For that same reason, offering somebody a job and a training contract at the same time is incredibly attractive. When we’re all competing in the market for the same talent, it can be hard for small businesses to compete with bigger names for experienced candidates. 

What you can do is go for people who’ve got complementary, but not direct experience for a role, and then offer the training alongside. If you go to the people who want to get into that area, and they’re being offered an opportunity, then by having that training contract you’re likely to attract them. As a small business, you’ll be able to attract a higher quality talent.

Most of our digital marketing recruits have one of three backgrounds: writing, film or graphic design, and then we add the digital marketing layer so they can use those skills to create brilliant content that wins and retains customers for your business. Read about Annabel.

2. How much to pay them?

If you are thinking that an apprentice is cheap labour, then you’ve got it wrong. Don’t think that you should be paying them the minimum that the government stipulates for an apprenticeship. If you need talent in your organisation, paying even a little more makes a huge difference to the kinds of people that you attract. 

In the book, ‘Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’, author Bruce Tulgan recommends structuring increases in salary related to performance over the life of the programme. So you’re being incredibly transparent about the way that a new employee can improve their salary and what success looks like. That does throw up a need to be really good on your appraisals, but if you pre-establish this structure then it acts as an incredibly powerful motivator.

If you’re upskilling an existing employee, you can continue to pay them the same salary or change it to fit the new role – there is no rule to say an apprentice must be on minimum wage.

3. A nurturing environment

If you are the type of business owner that gets a kick out of bringing on the next generation, or enjoys developing your staff, then an apprenticeship programme will likely be a great fit. 

The oven-ready employee is a myth. You have an idea of what hole you want to fill and then you go to market and you can never fill it exactly. You’ve always got to change things. If you bring in somebody that doesn’t have direct experience for the role, and you provide a nurturing environment to help them grow into it, then you get to grow someone to fit exactly what you want. 

This creates a nurturing environment where you’re investing in your staff and people become loyal. They tend to stay, they want to be there. 

Kenny Whitelaw-Jones Gridlines quote

4. Who’s going to manage them?

Is it going to be you, or is it going to be somebody else? If you consider it to be a responsibility and a privilege to bring on the next generation, then you should be doing it. If you think it’s going to be a chore, then don’t do it. You’ll set yourself up to fail. 

“I believe it is both the responsibility and the privilege to bring on the next generation”
Helen Sanders, Your People Partners

Employing anyone is challenging. A young person may not have a lot of experience in an office environment, but at the same time you’re getting somebody who’s really motivated, really energetic, really innovative, who will push on and develop fast. It’s a balancing act. 

So if it’s not you, then who? 

Interestingly, managing an apprentice can provide a real new lease of life for older employees. There is real meaning to be found in bringing on the next generation. A lot of SMEs are full of people approaching retirement, and this gives them a chance to pass on their knowledge and keep it in the business.  

Or it could be somebody being given a chance at their first management role. It’s a great way to help retain good employees and give them more responsibility. An apprenticeship means they’re not left on their own, they’ve got the training provider and all the support of a structured programme to help them develop as a manager. 

You could even enrol them into a Leadership & Management apprenticeship at the same time. 

5. Apprentices can wear many hats

Within a small business, it’s very unusual for somebody to have a full-time dedicated role. Everybody has to pitch in because there’s not many people and things need to get done. If you’ve got an apprentice, provided they’re doing 50% or three days a week on their subject area, they could be doing any number of other tasks as well. So you could bring in a business admin apprentice who is also answering the phone, packing boxes or running an event. 

For an existing employee, you could have someone in customer service and because they’re young, they’ve been managing the social media channels and doing the website. Perhaps it’s time to get them some training and support for that marketing work they’re doing alongside the customer service. 

Working Knowledge Apprentices

The young talent helping our business network thrive. Find out more about them here

6. Would an apprentice fill the role?

Business owners are busy, and if you’re scaling up then there’s likely to be a number of tasks across the business where you need more capacity. You need to bring in a financial controller, you need to do something with your digital marketing, you need somebody to help you with all those tasks that never get done. 

The question to ask at that point is, ‘Would an apprentice fulfill this role?’ Would your organisation benefit from an individual getting training to fulfill that role as opposed to bringing somebody in who has long experience in doing that role?

If you’ve never had an apprentice, this is the time to start talking to training providers, other business owners and their apprentices to find out how good they are and whether they can fulfill your need.

Apprenticeships can be anything from GCSE equivalent to Master’s Level across a range of business areas, so take a look at the more than 600 standards now available via The Institute for Apprenticeships. Ask yourself, would the people in my organisation (at whatever level they are) benefit from 95% government-funded training

The best place to start is by looking at the National Apprenticeship Service, and finding a list of the different apprenticeship courses and providers. 

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