An award-winning HR Tech entrepreneur and champion of female entrepreneurship from Birmingham, UK

What it will take for me to ever consider taking on an apprentice again

The background

In 2017, I wrote a post highlighting some of the pitfalls I had uncovered as a small business owner when initially looking to take on apprentices. In that piece, I reflected on the lack of support and guidance available for small businesses when looking to take on these young people – noting that I had to utilise our employment solicitor at cost instead.

I also highlighted how complex apprenticeship schemes were to get your head around as a small organisation but mostly how challenging it was to deal with government-backed apprenticeship providers. I’d liken it to dealing with pushy recruiters who all want your business.

In short, I wanted people to see that these factors were likely to mean only big businesses with significant experience and resources could benefit from up-and-coming new talent, when in fact, a greater breadth of opportunity and progression may be available to apprentices joining growing small businesses and the benefit to the businesses and themselves could be significant.

The reality

From 2017 onwards, our experience of taking on apprentices did not improve and, in fact, significantly worsened. We had two apprentices. One completed his course and left us in early September 2018 as the permanent position we had hoped the individual would take wasn’t what they wanted. The second was on a slightly longer course and had just submitted his final coursework when the news broke of the collapse of the apprenticeship provider, 3aaa. The same tax-payer-funded provider I later learned was being investigated for fraud allegations, having spent an inordinate amount of money becoming the partner of Derbyshire Cricket Club!

The collapse of 3aaa resulted in months of uncertainty for both our apprentice and Natural HR. We found out we could not simply get him accredited with a different provider as the syllabus of each course differed. We also found that our apprentice was considered “too far along” in his course for many other providers to take on.

We had no helpful point of contact to get any clarity as the provider was now non-existent. Course assessors were out of a job and in no place to support us. It was a challenging time, coupled with half of the small financial incentive to take on the apprentices for small businesses, never materialised.

In this time of uncertainty, we adopted a ‘business as usual’ approach. We continued to employ our apprentice as, to me, it was the right thing to do, especially at a time when we couldn’t provide any certainty about his qualification.

From finding another provider to our apprentice undertaking further assessments, it took around 9 months for him to receive his qualification. We’ve since found that some of his peers could not achieve this, as many providers were not prepared to take on apprentices 13 months into their course.

What it would take to revisit apprenticeships

I am writing this post as I was reminded of this difficult time when I spotted an article in Personnel Today, stating that a Quarter of Employers Felt Let Down By Apprenticeship Providers. Reading this reminded me of how strongly I felt about the need for some real-life advice, aside from the Apprenticeship providers to support small organisations taking on these people.

Since this experience and without formal guidance from apprenticeship providers or the government, I have uncovered an independent body called The National Apprenticeship Service (whom I wasn’t aware of when initially looking at taking on apprentices). They provide precisely the kind of practical advice you need, which would have been of more significant benefit. Apprenticeships are a learning curve for the apprentice and the business, but this might’ve made our curve a little less steep.

The article also reminded me of the need to ensure providers are honest about the process and potential pitfalls from the outset. For example, the amount of coursework involved for the apprentices was colossal and not a factor we were aware of from the outset. This meant a large proportion of their time with you was spent doing coursework or desperately finding them tasks to do that would align with the criteria on their coursework – not ideal for either the younger person supposedly undertaking real-world learning or the business.

During our apprenticeship woes, I was also shocked to see how little compliance there was regarding these Apprenticeship providers. I was therefore heartened to see last week’s news that the Education and Skills Funding Agency is bolstering its compliance and prevention teams. This should help avoid situations like that of the 3aaa collapse.

However, until there is evidence of a fundamental shift in the way government-backed apprenticeship providers are monitored and held the account until there is more robust governance of the sector, and until there is absolute transparency and honesty with organisations from the outset, my business won’t be taking on more apprentices.

I see this as a real shame as someone who was once so passionate about nurturing skills and giving opportunities to those who want a future in our sector.

Have you had positive or negative experiences with apprenticeship schemes as an employer?

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