09/03/2015

By Stephen Hodges - Managing Director & banking Chief Executive of Close Brothers

Every business needs to invest in order to grow, but if you are a small business with limited resources what should you focus on? All businesses have their differences, but my advice to any SME is that if you are serious about growth, you need to be serious about apprenticeships.

This isn’t just about hiring young staff or jumping on a political bandwagon, it’s about seizing the opportunity to build a loyal and sustainable workforce by inspiring and nurturing great talent. Not all businesses will have the means or requirements to take on an apprentice this year, but every business with ambition – whatever the size – should take the time to consider it.

And for those small businesses willing to take the jump, they may be eligible for a £1500 grant from the Government to help cover the cost.

Bolstered by cross-party political support, apprenticeships are enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment; up to 25,000 apprenticeship vacancies available online at any one time, and more than 850,000 people have been earning and learning on an apprenticeship over the last year. However, there are many more qualified applicants than apprenticeship places each year, and not enough companies are taking part.

Perception is part of the problem. While attitudes are slowly changing, the focus on university education in the nineties and noughties means that apprenticeships are often regarded as a poor second option for today’s school leavers, and wrongly so. More needs to be done to introduce people to the concept of the modern apprentice – who has as little in common with the contestants of the TV show bearing the same name as they do with the apprentices of yesteryear (male dominated and associated with construction, manufacturing or industrial trades).

The most popular apprenticeships today are in health and social care, business administration and management, and are equally likely to be taken up by young women as they are young men. There are a wide variety of disciplines on offer ranging from art, media and publishing to more traditional areas such as engineering and manufacturing technologies. In reality any company, regardless of product or service, can and should offer apprenticeships.

The benefits are clear. An effective, rewarding apprenticeship scheme promotes loyalty amongst participants for the company that believed in their potential enough to invest in them. In the long term it can close a skills gap in your organisation and even provide the leadership for the future. Indeed, apprenticeships are one of the most viable and long-term answers to a chronic issue that threatens to hold back Britain’s economic recovery: our national skills shortage.

There are responsibilities in taking on an apprentice, and companies must commit to training their recruits to provide the means for them to ‘learn the trade’ and become true experts in their chosen field. This requires a well-resourced and well-structured programme with a selection and remuneration policy that will attract the highly-motivated, ambitious and determined school leavers that your business needs.

Crucially, there is very little downside – according to the Government nearly every employer that takes on an apprentice (96%) reports benefits to their business. Investing in apprenticeships is something all businesses should consider.