Promoting apprenticeships to SMEs: Training providers need to wake up and smell the roses

The florist said “they never send me anyone who can work out the cost of half a dozen flower stems to make a bouquet and be trusted to write a greetings card without making a spelling mistake”. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement and the discussion moved on.

We were talking about apprenticeships at one of the many business networking groups that run each week across the UK.  These networking groups attract business owners from small local businesses, with the prospect of building new business contacts and new clients over breakfast.   Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) accounted for 99.9% of all private sector business in the UK, employ 14.1 million people and have a combined turnover of £1,500 Billion,  so they need to be on board when it comes to apprenticeships.  The conversations we’ve had with many SME business owners suggest that the comment from the florist is not untypical, and there is some scepticism about apprenticeships, particularly among small and micro-size businesses.

Yet Recent research by ICM showed that employers rated qualified apprentices 15% more employable than those with other qualifications.   On closer inspection the employers interviewed were mostly large blue chip corporates, with HR departments and dedicated staff who can focus on employee learning and development.   In SMEs the business owner, may also be in charge of HR, aswell as cashflow, sales, marketing and production – it is no wonder that anecdotal evidence suggests that small and micro businesses are not taking on apprentices.

The reasons for low take-up of apprentices by SMEs vary, but the two most often reasons cited were the inability of recruit someone with the right skills and competencies and secondly that there was insufficient work to employ a new fulltime employee for at least 30 hours per week – one of the criteria for recruiting an apprentice.    Perhaps surprisingly none of the business owners we spoke with said that they weren’t prepared to take on an apprentice because of the time to train and develop a new person.   Business owners understand the need for a succession plan – and they want to make sure that any apprentice coming into the business has the core competencies they expect of other employees.

In many ways setting a “high bar for entry” is reassuring and a good sign.   The Apprenticeships Agreement “reflects the fact that an Apprenticeship is primarily a job rather than training”.   So business owners are right to have the same expectations of an apprentice joining their business as they would for any other employee.

Apprenticeships can help improve the business bottom line, but it needs to be made easier for small and micro sized businesses to recruit and employ apprentices.   To do this training providers and colleges need to get out and engage with their local SME community.   Training providers must listen hard to the objections, the misunderstandings and prejudices of business owners and then systematically prove that their organisation can address those concerns effectively.  The solution could be designing a programme whereby an apprentice is “shared” by a group of SMEs or simply checking that the apprentices they send to a florist can work out the what is the most profitable bouquet.