Cultivating a company culture fit for apprentices

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Apprenticeships offer a practical solution to the UK skills shortage, but their reputation means many organisations aren’t taking advantage of them. Before we can realise the benefits, we must first create a culture in which apprenticeships can thrive.

As critical skills gaps and low productivity are increasingly rife in UK businesses, many employers are working to address these issues and future-proof their organisation. With limited funding available, businesses are looking for maximum impact from any investment in training.

Apprenticeships are undoubtedly a practical solution, offering employers the opportunity to upskill existing employees or onboard new staff whilst they work, and ultimately develop a thriving workforce and sustainable talent pipeline.

However, businesses all over the UK will be unable to maximise the opportunity presented by apprenticeships unless they get the whole of their organisation on board.

For any apprenticeship scheme to be implemented successfully, a supportive company culture that encourages continual learning and recognises the value of having apprentices at all levels, and among both new and existing staff, is key.

A new culture for a new apprenticeships system

Despite some concerning headlines, the new apprenticeship levy has given employers a good reason to consider introducing apprenticeships to their business.

It not only provides a valuable source of funds to put towards training, but it also incentivises them to focus on plugging skills gaps across their business and build a more skilled and qualified workforce.

The great news is that employers are starting to realise that apprenticeships today have much wider applications than they had thought. In fact, they can be used to upskill staff at every level of the organisation, and across every department.

58% of employers saying they feel middle and senior managers would be unwilling to be seen as an apprentice, with 53% citing the ‘reputation and image’ of apprenticeships as reasons for this.

Yet it’s taking time for the full potential of the levy and new standards to be unlocked. New systems and set-ups have left some businesses confused and concerned about how they can implement apprenticeships and access funds.

Complex processes are only part of the barrier to apprenticeships. The dominating factor behind their success – or lack thereof – is the company culture, which will ultimately determine whether they are embraced or dismissed by organisations.

Cultural barriers to apprenticeships

Research conducted by ILM earlier this year found that misconceptions and outdated stigmas are holding back middle and senior managers, in particular, from enrolling in apprenticeship programmes.

The research (which looked at the training budgets and preferences of 1,000 UK HR decision makers) revealed that 58% of employers saying they feel middle and senior managers would be unwilling to be seen as an apprentice, with 53% citing the ‘reputation and image’ of apprenticeships as reasons for this, and 41% saying the implication it means they need additional support.

The case for leadership and management apprenticeships

Worryingly, we also found that employers’ confidence in the future supply of leaders and managers in their organisations falls when looking beyond the next five years.

While utilising formal training to upskill managers would appear to be a logical solution, nearly a fifth (18%) of businesses surveyed predicted cuts in training budgets over the next three years.

With budget cuts making it increasingly difficult for businesses to overcome this talent deficit, apprenticeships could be the solution employers are looking for.

However, misinformed perceptions about apprenticeships are still rife, including deeply ingrained associations with trade, low wages and the idea that they stall progression.

Taking the time to build a culture that’s supportive and receptive of apprenticeships will pay huge dividends – and will demonstrate the pivotal role played by learning and development in organisational success.

This means that these training programmes, which could provide staff including middle and senior managers with invaluable skills and knowledge to further their careers, are being disregarded by those aspiring to develop.

Fostering a positive learning culture

Employers and HR professionals are key to the development of a company culture that is pro-learning and pro-apprenticeships.

Here are some ways you can help the organisation to become receptive to quality apprenticeship training.

1. Communicate clearly with staff

Whether you’re offering apprenticeship training programmes to existing employees or you’re in the process of on-boarding new apprentices, it’s important to get staff buy-in. Set aside time to talk to staff and explain what’s involved in an apprenticeship and the standards it sets.

Once individuals understand the ins and outs of an apprenticeship programme and the value they add for both individuals and the business, they will be better informed and more likely to engage positively with apprenticeships in the workplace.

2. Dispel misconceptions

As well as understanding the value of apprenticeships, it’s important to dispel any misunderstandings that might be putting staff off from becoming apprentices or hiring apprentices for their team.

Explain that apprenticeships are no longer just for vocational skills, but for people working across all sectors and industries. An apprenticeship is not just for people at the start of their career, nor is it the end of the road – for the majority of UK workers, an apprenticeship is a route into a career of lifelong learning, development and wage growth.

Remind staff that apprenticeships programmes are more flexible than they might think, with training options available for employees at all levels of seniority and across all departments.     

3. Remember the ROI

Encourage apprentices to attend classes and events off-site that will broaden their horizons, allow them to meet people from other businesses and industries and gain experience outside of the workplace.

Returning to work reinvigorated and with new ideas, apprentices can immediately add value: their insights can contribute to improvements in products and processes, which can in turn deliver significant return on investment for employers and benefit the business as a whole.

For employers concerned about the 20% off-the-job training requirement, while it’s important to realise the benefit of time off-site, this 20% does not have to mean a day a week out of the business.

Work with training providers and apprentices to identify ways of recording naturally-occurring evidence that will count towards the off-the-job training quota, and you’ll be surprised quite how beneficial this can be to the wider team as well as to the individual apprentice.

4. Consider enrolling senior staff on apprenticeships

When looking to gain buy-in from employees across the organisation, consider enrolling senior staff – such as directors or even C-suite – on management apprenticeship programmes. This will send a powerful message across the business.

While our research showed that middle and senior managers worry about how apprenticeships could negatively impact how they are perceived professionally, if they can follow the example set by business leaders, they will be encouraged to follow.

Once leaders at all levels of seniority understand that apprenticeships could be a potential investment opportunity for their career, you’ll be well on your way to developing a fit and healthy talent pipeline and paving the way to a sustainable future for the business.

Taking the time to build a culture that’s supportive and receptive of apprenticeships will pay huge dividends – and will demonstrate the pivotal role played by learning and development in organisational success.

Employers, leaders and HR decision makers that help businesses successfully implement apprenticeships will find themselves in the optimal position to plug critical skills gaps and fuel productivity, both for their business and indeed for the UK economy.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read How apprenticeships can drive digital transformation in your organisation.

About Jake Tween

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