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A Is For Learning

The word apprentice is based on the French for “to learn” (apprendre). And for hundreds of years, in one form or another, that has been the purpose and status of the apprentice. It’s often been associated with the learning of trades and crafts such as dying and weaving, carpentry and joinery, building and construction; and in the last century, electrical and plumbing skills.

In today’s climate there’s been considerable focus on helping young people acquire the skills for work. University isn’t suitable for everyone and there are many (me included) who have found that the fruits of universities aren’t always especially literate or skilled for the workplace. Now that fees have gone up so much, many young people are more reluctant to take on that extra level of debt.

A number of my clients in hard-to-recruit businesses like engineering have been “growing their own” for some time. The results have been generally encouraging, but there was a sharp learning curve for the employer along the way. For instance, a number of the colleges they used to work with their apprentices were so poor that changes had to be made to ensure the apprentices were well-supported.

An apprenticeship can be a great way of gaining some practical skills in a recognised trade. And if the results of a recent ICM survey are to be believed, employers rate qualified apprentices as 15% more employable than those with other qualifications. I say if the results are to be believed - I’m not doubting the honesty of the survey, but I have read surveys whose results make my eyebrows shoot up in surprise and sometimes disbelief. For example, I read one that suggested employers find employment tribunals helpful and efficient. I really cannot imagine who has responded in that way. It made me laugh; the published findings were so different from all our own (fairly considerable) experience of tribunals.

Back to the apprentice survey. In this case, employers were asked to rate the employability of people with different qualifications on a scale of 1-10. The findings are shown below.

  • Higher (equivalent to degree level) apprenticeship 7.98
  • University degree 7.58
  • Advanced (Level 3) apprenticeship 7.24
  • Intermediate (Level 2) apprenticeship 6.86
  • Level 3 vocational qualification 6.63
  • A-Levels 6.28

The higher apprenticeship is gaining popularity. These allow an apprentice to study at degree-level while getting paid. 3,700 people started higher apprenticeships during the 2011/2012 academic year, a 68% rise on the year before. A number of large employers, for example, British Airways, are starting to use them.

At present, the higher apprenticeships are available in 41 subjects including engineering environmental technologies, interactive media, legal services and space engineering, but these will be extended.

Last year, the government funded 4,230 placements in the second round of a £25m higher apprenticeships initiative. At the time, Business Secretary Vince Cable said it would help sectors tackle skills shortages and boost participation by under-represented groups like women.

I’d agree with Mr Cable that this can be a really practical solution to address skills shortages, but like anything else that involves employees, there are issues to be managed. Apprentices can be hard work. Some are bright but downright gormless and you have to be patient and prepared to put the time in to bring them up to speed. The rewards are there – just don’t expect instant solutions. Good luck!

If you’d like help managing an apprentice scheme, get in touch.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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