Amy Edwards: Apprentices – An impossible option for SMEs?

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It’s common knowledge that we’ve got a major issue with youth unemployment in the UK at the moment. According to figures released in July, more than 800,000 young people aged 16-24 were out of work in March to May 2014 – and while that number is significantly down from the previous quarter, no one can deny that that figure isn’t still alarmingly high.

One solution that the government has been pushing as a possible solution to ease youth unemployment is apprenticeships. Available across a range of industries, apprenticeships offer young people a chance to “earn while they learn” and earn a qualification, while offering businesses a way to “improve productivity while reducing costs”.

The premise is relatively simple – an apprentice joins a business and receives training and support from the employer in-house and off-site training from a third party training provider. At the end of the apprenticeship, the apprentice comes out with lots of hands-on experience – both in terms of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills (something which the majority of employers are crying out for!) and a qualification, while the employer walks away with a sense of achievement and potentially even a new employee – should they choose to keep the apprentice on at the end of the course.

Taking on an apprentice becomes an even more attractive proposition for businesses when you start to consider the financial incentives which are also available. Should an employer take on an apprentice, they could be entitled to a handout of £1500 (AGE 16 to 24), alongside an additional handout to cover all or some of the training costs associated with the apprenticeship. In addition, the government are also keen to point out that businesses are only obligated to pay their apprentice National Minimum Wage for an apprentice – which currently stands at just £2.68 per hour for anyone aged 16-18.

When you consider all of the above, hiring an apprentice seems like a win-win situation for businesses – but is this really the case? In reality – how easy is it to get an apprentice on board – and how practical would an apprenticeship be for a small business? In short, the answers are; ‘not easy’ and ‘not very’.

Let me explain. At the start of the year, we joined the European Commission’s Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs – and as part of our pledge we agreed to help to raise the profile of apprenticeships in the digital sector in an attempt to drive more young people into the sector and address the current digital skills shortage.

A few months later, we realised we needed to add another member to our digital marketing team and, as this would be quite a junior role, we thought we’d try and practice what we were preaching and take on an apprentice.

The first thing we needed to do was get our heads around exactly what elements were involved in an apprenticeship, which apprenticeship framework we wanted to use and which training provider was the right option. And this was where our headaches began.

First; the process. Before we made our pledge to the Grand Coalition, we’d done quite a bit of research into apprenticeships in the digital sector – so we were probably more knowledgeable than most – but that knowledge didn’t actually help much in terms of knowing where to start. Within minutes we found ourselves confused about which frameworks were available, who and what a training provider was, which grants were available and how we applied – and, most importantly, if an apprenticeship was actually the right option for our business. To put it bluntly – we were lost!

The first thing we decided to do was to find a framework. The framework is basically the modules and overall course you want your apprentice to complete – so it goes without saying that you need to ensure that the work and experience you’re offering actually matches up to this framework. Given that the work we had on offer was based in digital marketing – it became clear we had two options – ‘Digital Marketing & Social Media’ and ‘Creative & Digital Media’.

In order to determine which the right framework was for Bubble Jobs, we had to look at the modules each framework included and which ones we could offer… which is where we got lost again. You see, depending on which framework you choose, the apprentice has to complete a set number of modules – some of which are obligatory and some of which are optional – working out which was which was definitely easier said than done.

On top of the modules, each framework also requires the apprentice to take time out of the office to attend college and/or complete an online course each week. Oh, and on top of that, some also require the apprentice and the business to take time out to meet with the training provider each month or so. Unfortunately, again, working out which framework required which wasn’t quick or easy.

Talking of training providers, it’s time to get confused again. You see, the training provider acts as an assessor and trainer for the apprentice – and works with the business to ensure the apprenticeship is being delivered in the right way. The confusing bit? Some colleges act as training providers, while others provide learning space for other independent training advisors. Oh, and did I mention that certain training providers only provide certain frameworks?

After a lot of phone calls and enquiries (many of which still remain unanswered to this day), we managed to track down a local training provider who agreed to come to our office to talk us through the framework and our responsibilities as an employer.

It was at this point that we were able to go through all the modules with the training provider (after having previously mapped all out possible tasks to different modules) and able to actually talk through the ins and outs of the framework. During this meeting we were also able to clear up whether the apprentice would need to take time out to attend college each week (they wouldn’t!), whether we’d be entitled to help with the training costs (we could get a full grant if the apprentice was aged 16-18) and just how much we should pay the apprentice (it was up to us as long as it met the National Minimum Wage for apprentices of that age).

During this meeting, our training provider assured us they’d only put forward candidates for interviews who were local, had previous digital marketing knowledge and who could genuinely do the job.

With all that cleared up; it was time to start advertising. Now, being a specialist jobs board for the digital industry, we know the ins and outs of advertising for a new employee…. But even we were surprised at how long it took for the training provider to get the first batch of possible candidates over to us (around eight weeks). After liaising with the training provider, we agreed for a few possible candidates to come in for an interview.

The candidates we interviewed were young, nervous and above all; vastly inexperienced and unfortunately not all that knowledgeable at all. When we quizzed them about which elements ‘digital marketing’ covered, ‘social media’ and ‘email’ seem to be the standard responses – which, while correct, only really make up a small proportion of the industry – something which these candidates would have known if they’d researched the topic pre-interview. And it was at this point that the reality of the situation hit us – and we realised an apprenticeship was just an impossibility.

The problem? The candidates’ ages meant they just had none of the core knowledge or basic experience that we were hoping for – which in turn meant that we’d have to spend hours each week teaching them even the most basic principles of digital marketing and in fact IT – spare hours which any fast-paced small business would struggle to find on a weekly basis.

In reality, rather than setting our apprentice tasks and leaving them to get on with it, we realised that we’d need to supervise them near enough constantly – which meant, rather than increased productivity, productivity was guaranteed to take a dip – again, a hit which no small business could afford to take.

With that in mind, we realised that taking on an apprentice was just not the right option for our business at the moment and instead decided to advertise for an executive, rather than an apprenticeship.

While there’s a possibility that our story is unique, I’m just not sure that’s the case. Yes, we knew that we’d have to put time and effort into getting to the stage that we could take on an apprentice, but I don’t think any small business could have prepared themselves for how long it actually takes – and just how lengthy and convoluted the process actually is.

While there are certainly incentives for a small business to take on an apprenticeship (certainly from a financial perspective), I’d argue that at this point the cons definitely outweigh the pros. The main issues? Like I said, the process is long, unclear and just downright confusing. There’s no step by step guide to what you have to do to take on an apprentice, what the best framework is for your role or who the best training provider is – and there’s definitely nothing to help you determine whether an apprenticeship is right for your business.

If, right at the beginning, someone would have sat down with us and told us you need to give up ‘xx’ amount of hours each week to work with your apprentice – and it’s going to take you ‘xx’ amount of hours in preparation time to get to the point where you can take the apprentice on, I’m fairly certain we wouldn’t have gone any further along this route.

From a small business perspective, with the apprenticeship process as it is at the moment, it’s easy to spend hours getting lost with all the different elements – and the lack of clear information means more often than not, businesses get lost in the process and end up giving up as soon as they have begun.  At the moment it’s a lot of guess work and feeling your way in the dark – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels disappointed by that.

In terms of whether an apprentice is an impossible option for SMEs, I’d say it obviously depends on the business in question, its staff and the type of apprenticeship on offer – but in general, I’d be inclined to say that offering an apprenticeship is simply not a viable option for the majority of small businesses in the UK today due to the time and effort involved. And until the apprenticeship process is revised and simplified, I can’t see that changing any time soon.

Amy Edwards is the Digital Marketing Manager for Bubble Jobs – a niche digital jobs board that specialises in advertising digital, ecommerce, online marketing and design jobs.

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