Ann Potterton argues that apprenticeships shouldn't just be for the bigger fish in the pond.
For many people running an SME can feel like walking a tightrope: a constant balancing act. The demands seem to be endless, there's never enough time to get everything done, and in the current economic climate, survival often takes priority over development.
Finding the time and thinking space to look at longer term issues can often take a backseat, and in particular, matters relating to staff recruitment and training are easy to put on hold – until there's a problem.
A well-trained, reliable workforce is the key to the success of any business – but in fields such as technology, IT and telecoms, it is even more vital. Team members need certain training and abilities to be able to do their jobs; training and abilities that the average person browsing the job pages simply doesn't have. This is a highly skilled sector, and ensuring a constant flow of new talent is essential.
"A well-trained, reliable workforce is the key to the success of any business – but in fields such as technology, IT and telecoms, it is even more vital."
The Technology Insight produced by e-skills in 2011 concluded that half a million new IT and Telecoms professionals will be needed within the next five years, and also reported that many companies with such shortages are experiencing delays in developing new products and services as a result. The Leitch Review stated that even if targets for improvements were met, the UK would still be lagging behind other comparable countries by 2020.
My field of expertise is telecoms, and within the industry the larger companies such as BT, Virgin Media and Cable & Wireless Worldwide tackle this skills shortage in part by operating their own highly successful apprenticeship schemes. The benefits of apprentices – not only in telecoms, but for all businesses – are well documented. A solid apprenticeship scheme can result in increased productivity; quickly plugged skills gaps, and a cost-effective way of recruiting and training staff.
Yet for many SMEs, apprenticeships seem out of reach. The barriers can seem insurmountable: already stressed managers baulk at the thought of more administration; and financial realities can make taking on an untested member of staff seem like a risk. Employing a young person and agreeing to provide their training is a lot of responsibility, and many SMEs are put off by the concept when they are already dealing with so many day-to-day trials. My organisation carried out research on apprenticeships when we were considering launching our own scheme, and these were the issues we came across. I'm sure that similar concerns are found across the board, not just in telecoms.
Taking on an apprentice, as opposed to a graduate or experienced employee, is perceived as taking a gamble. If you are a big business employing thousands of staff, one apprentice not working out will not present major problems – but if you are an SME where every penny counts, and every team member has an important role to play, it's a different story.
There are also issues around finances, and sourcing training, depending on which sector you work in. The Government and the National Apprenticeship Service has recognised these barriers, and are working hard to increase the amount of apprenticeships offered by SMEs. But ultimately it also comes down to having faith, and taking that gamble.
I believe the benefits far outweigh the risks. Young people may be untested, with no real track record in the workplace, but didn't we all start out that way? And don't we have a duty to offer opportunities to young people, allowing them to grow and develop their careers?
"Growing your own talent is like growing your own veg – you get it fresh, grown to your own requirements, as and when you need it."
A good apprenticeship scheme will be founded on good recruitment procedures: finding the right person for the right job hugely minimises the perceived risk of taking on an apprentice. A good apprenticeship will also be tailored to the needs of the business, whatever that business may be – which means that your bright, shiny apprentice will eventually graduate to become a valued member of staff with a thorough understanding of your organisation.
There will be no need to break bad work habits developed with another employer; or to retrain in different systems, or to wait for months for your new employee to adapt to the culture of your business. An apprentice that you have selected and trained will already be steeped in that culture, and have learned all the skills that you value.
Growing your own talent is like growing your own veg – you get it fresh, grown to your own requirements, as and when you need it. And – just ask anyone who has enjoyed a successful relationship with an apprentice – it can be just as satisfying.
- ITP research showed that 100% of respondents saw apprenticeships as a cost effective way of recruiting and keeping staff
- 100% saw them as a way of bringing fresh talent into the business
- Retention rates for apprentices are higher than for graduates
- Employers say they bring in new ideas, and inspire existing staff
- 100% of employers who didn't employ apprentices said they would like to in an ideal world
- 100% said the greatest barrier was the time and admin effort involved
Ann Potterton is chief executive of the Institute of Telecommunications Professionals. The ITP is the telecoms leading professional body, representing more than 8,000 members drawn from 200 different organisations and is therefore uniquely placed, to understand the needs of employers large and small.