Why aren’t more SMEs taking on apprentices?

Fiona Harwood has seen the benefits that apprenticeship programmes can bring to a business. Here, she dispels some of the myths that surround apprenticeships to encourage SMEs to get involved.

The education and training landscape is changing. Factors such as rising university tuition fees, youth unemployment and skill shortages in certain sectors are causing organisations to look closely at their recruitment programmes to determine the most efficient and effective method of finding and employing staff.

Apprenticeships in particular have been put in the spotlight with the government investing more money into helping employers take on their own apprentice. But are these incentives working?

Only 19 per cent of small businesses are likely to take on an apprentice in 2013 compared to 41 per cent of large organisations, according to Barclays research. This is concerning.

Apprenticeship programmes targeted at young people and school leavers have the potential to change an organisation for the better, and at Fiander Tovell LLP, we have certainly seen the benefits.

Bringing on young talent gives an organisation the chance to develop an individual’s skills to fit the needs and ethos of the business. Apprentices bring a willingness to learn, and an enthusiasm that other recruits may not necessarily possess. Additionally, the Centre for Economics and Business Research has shown that companies with an apprentice gain £214 per week in productivity boost.

So why aren’t more SMEs capitalising on this opportunity?

The main barrier that is preventing small businesses from getting involved is the fear of time it takes to set up an apprenticeship programme and the additional support that the individual would need. In particular, 39 per cent of micro companies cite red tape as the most significant barrier.

The unknown truths

At Fiander Tovell, we’ve been running an apprenticeship training programme for over 20 years. Every year we take on between one and three new recruits as accounting apprentices who study the AAT Accounting Qualification. As a result, AAT training is now very much embedded into the ethos and working life of our business.

Over the years we have built close relationships with careers advisers and tutors at local sixth form colleges to promote the scheme. We get a high calibre of students that want to join us, many making a conscious decision not to go to university.

This approach has been extremely successful, and we’ve trained approximately 40 people over the years, with the vast majority continuing their studies to become fully fledged chartered accountants and/or tax specialists.

With this in mind, there are some unknown truths that I feel small businesses need to be aware of.

1. Size doesn’t matter

We have 46 staff in total. One of the main reasons why the training programme works for us is because we’re large enough to give our apprentices a variety of experience, but we are small enough to support and monitor their progress closely as individuals.

We are able to vary the training to match the skill set of the individual and recognise that one structure does not suit all. When dealing with young people we have learned that they develop and mature at different rates but their enthusiasm is a constant.

2. The right mentor makes the world of difference

Finding the right mentor is essential and can determine the success of your apprenticeship programme and apprentice.

Our apprentices are fully supported. They are paired up with more experienced trainees and managers and partners so they can constructively discuss their projects and the theory they are learning in the classroom directly in the workplace from day one. As they progress, they are continually challenged to learn, improve and take on additional responsibility. They are the potential future managers and partners of the firm so they are motivated and encouraged by all members of staff to succeed.

3. Support is available

The National Apprenticeship Service offers a step by step guide that helps businesses to connect with training providers, advertise vacancies and find the right candidates for their programme.

Businesses of less than 1,000 staff also have the opportunity to access a £1,500 grant when taking on their first apprentice aged 16-24.

4. It’s worth the investment

We firmly believe that the AAT qualification gives our staff the right foundations needed for our industry. It’s important to us that all trainees and apprentices start at the same level to gain these foundations before progressing to further qualifications.

Career progression within the business is dependent on both progression through qualifications and the application of those skills in the workplace. We are developing staff with the practical experience and skills that match the needs of our business and clients which in the longer term makes for a more efficient and effective workforce.

We understand that not everyone will choose to stay within an accounting practice environment throughout their working life; but our training scheme gives the essentials for a successful career and we now have a number of trainees who have progressed to become Finance Directors.