By Michelle Adams, O2’s Head of Talent

It’s been brilliant to see apprenticeships taking centre stage of late, with the government pledging to create 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020 — and more recently announcing that it is clamping down on lower quality apprenticeship programmes. It’s a testament to the genuine value of this career path, and further evidence of the shift in attitudes toward appren-ticeships which we’ve seen over the last few years.

And yet the reality is that there is still a way to go before apprenticeships are truly seen by all — whether it’s the government, careers services, parents or young people themselves — as being on a par with university. That’s why it’s so important that businesses ensure that the apprenticeship programmes they deliver are of the very highest quality, so that they earn the reputation they deserve as a valuable career path.

But getting buy-in from across your organisation about the value of apprentices, and ensuring that the programme you deliver is of the highest quality — benefitting your apprentices and your business alike — can be a challenging task. So here are my tips on making the case for and delivering a quality apprenticeship scheme.

Make the business case for apprenticeships

The benefits of apprenticeships to young people are obvious and well-documented; hands-on experience surrounded by people at the top of their game, a good salary, and no student debt to repay at the end. But in order to get buy-in about the benefits of hiring apprentices from across your business, it’s important to remind people within your organisation that offering apprenticeships isn’t an entirely selfless act; they’re good for employers too. We’ve employed hundreds of apprentices over the last sixteen years so we see first-hand the value that they bring every day with their enthusiasm and fresh perspectives. Many of our apprentices have quickly gone up through the ranks and are now at management level.

A great way of showcasing young people’s value to the wider business — as well as simply putting apprentices on teams — is by reverse mentoring. We run various initiatives — including mystery lunches — to give people across the organisation the chance to learn new skills and trends from younger recruits. That’s because we recognise that hiring apprentices is a brilliant way of tapping into the natural digital skills that young people have. As the first generation to have grown up with the internet, young people have digital skills at their fingertips that so many other workers simply don’t, and that businesses in every sector are crying out for. This makes young people’s skills vital to the future success of businesses across the country — regardless of sector — and employers ignore them at their peril.

Quality is King

Although the government is right to be recognising apprenticeships as a meaningful alterna-tive route into the workplace by pledging to create 3 million new roles, it’s important to re-member that it’s not all about the numbers; quality is just as — if not more — important.

That’s why once you’ve secured the backing from your business to develop an apprentice-ship programme, it’s important to invest time, money and energy into nurturing your appren-tices, providing the right support they need to thrive, climb up the career ladder, and fulfil their potential.

Because businesses that offer quality apprenticeship programmes aren’t just investing in the now; they’re future-proofing their businesses with the right talent, and ensuring that they are equipped with the right talent and skills not just to survive, but to flourish in the long term. This makes it all the more important for you to reflect carefully on how best to support your ap-prentices and help them develop professionally.

Creating the right culture

To make sure that apprenticeships are well established, integrated and valued within your organisation, it’s crucial to create the right culture. For an apprenticeship programme to work, it requires other employees at every level and in every department to realise your apprentic-es are there to gain valuable experience, and not just of the photo-copying room! Only then will they feel nurtured and valued from day one.

Apprentices play a vital role, and the fact that we’re seeing more and more directorates ask for an apprentice to be added to their teams at the start of every year is a testament to the value that our apprentices add to our business — and how much they are valued. Feedback has been overwhelmingly favourable highlighting that apprentices generally have really posi-tive attitudes and a hunger for knowledge and growth. Apprentices are really eager to show you exactly what they are capable of and if a company can be encouraging and let them fly then the benefits for both are often even bigger for both.

Ultimately, it’s in a business’ interests to make sure that their apprenticeship programmes are of a high quality and are fit for purpose. Not only is this what’s right for young people, but businesses need to make sure they’re getting a good return on their investment. As with any-thing, you get what you put in; the more you invest in your apprenticeship programme and make it the best it can be, the more likely you are to see your apprentices not only to be loyal and stay with your company, but grow to become the talented backbone of your future work-force.