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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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HRZone Interview: Jason Holt on apprenticeships

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Most UK businesses are missing a fantastic growth opportunity by failing to offer apprenticeships, believes jeweller and entrepreneur Jason Holt, who has just completed a government report on how to make such schemes more manageable for small-to-medium enterprises.

Holt took over the family jewellery business in 1999 and subsequently set up Holt’s Academy of Jewellery to train people in designing and manufacturing it. Today, the not-for-profit organisation educates 1,000 people a year.

Holt’s report highlighted some of the barriers that were holding back others from following suit and found that a lot of SMEs simply misunderstood what apprenticeships are, not least because many schemes are too complex and inaccessible. 

HRZone caught up with Holt to find out why he believes apprenticeships are something that UK companies of all sizes should get excited about:  

Q. What’s so great about apprenticeships?

A. We’ve always taken on apprentices in our business and they are key lieutenants for the business itself. It is a route to growth, a way to strengthen and grow a company.
 
There’s no better way to add talent to your business, to mould people to your company, and I don’t understand why companies don’t take them on. Switzerland and Germany, for example, have strong vocational skills training and a strong economy.
 
The good thing is that the government really wants to get it right. There are 450,000 apprenticeships in this country and the number is growing fast.

Q. Is there a problem with the way apprenticeships are perceived?

A. Universities have grown over a generation with little thought to those who aren’t suited or don’t want to go to university. A big problem is that schools are not incentivised to talk about apprenticeships because they want to keep students until they are 18.
 
There’s a focus on academia as a measure of success and a fair amount of snobbery against apprenticeships. Apprenticeships did go out of fashion and a lot of people think that they are only for manual skills, but there are new types of apprenticeship in 240 different areas such as biotech and hospitality now – it’s not just for people who wear overalls.

Q. What specific issues do SMEs face with regards to apprenticeships?

A. There’s less than a 10% take-up of apprenticeships among SMEs. You’re very time-poor when working in an SME and, unless the opportunity is very obvious instantly, then it’s lost, whereas big businesses have HR support and can afford to take a long-term view.
 
A problem for SMEs is that what they want is often very bespoke. Most small businesses have very specific needs, so they require a tailored response to be given by the training provider.

Apprenticeships are also misunderstood. The proposition needs to be so obvious and simple and people should be able to just ‘get it’. The steps to hiring someone should be so straightforward that you don’t think twice about doing it.

 
At the moment, the system is very difficult for some employers to navigate and this is where the role of the training provider is crucial. Most people don’t appreciate the role of the trainer.
 
Trainers are in the middle, the critical third arm who cements that relationship between employer and apprentice – they are like the outsourced recruitment arm of employers.
 
Some trainers are fantastic and are good at selecting the right candidates and presenting three or four interviews with employers that are right for the job. If the training provider is good, then it can be a very, very easy process and everyone is really happy.
 
But, of course, not all providers are as responsive. To become a provider, you do need to be accredited, but there’s possibly call for more competition and recognition in the environment.
 
JHP Training, for example, is very good at running nursery apprenticeships, but there’s nothing in the current system that would tell me whether it is good or bad overall.

Q. Are apprenticeships only suitable for young people?

A. In England, you can be an apprentice up to the age of 65. There’s a misplaced perception – it’s not just about young people and there’s a strong role for more mature apprentices such as a mother who wants to go back to work and learn on the job.
 
It’s a great stepping stone to a career. Similarly, there are part-time apprenticeships of 16 hours a week to help such people.

If you ask businesses – and I spoke to over 100 for the report – most have great concerns about how work-ready some young people are and they feel the need for pre-apprenticeship training. Things like basic punctuality, dress and social skills are important.

Q. Do people tend to stay with the company after they’ve finished their apprenticeship?

A. A lot of companies say, ‘why spend time on people when they’ll leave?’ But if you provide them with a buzzy, vibrant, growing business, then they will stay, the same as everyone else. The vast majority of apprentices – 70% – stay on after qualifying.

If more businesses understood it, if it was much easier to do and they had more support from training partners, then employers would see that it’s a great route to growth, and then more people would take it up as a serious career option.

Q. What is the situation among larger companies?

A. There’s a line in the sand. Any business with more than 50 people generally has an HR system that could absorb this. Companies like Rolls Royce and BT have world-renowned apprenticeships, but it all depends on the management and what they believe.
 
There are companies with under 10 employees, or even one employee, electricians for example, who take on apprenticeships. It’s not about size but attitude.
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Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

Read more from Cath Everett
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