02/04/2014

By Jane Scott Paul OBE, CEO of the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT)

Over the past few years, education has gone through a period of transition. Set against a backdrop of rising tuition fees, a growing number of school leavers are thinking twice about the best way to gain qualifications and enter the jobs market.

The increase in fees to £9,000 a year and heightened competition for places at the top institutions have led to a drop-off in the number of young people attending university, and many school leavers are now considering alternative routes to employment. Apprenticeships have never been so popular, but despite all the benefits apprentices bring, many small businesses are still missing out on the opportunity.

The Government is certainly keen to add to the number of young people choosing apprenticeships and has pledged to invest £1.4bn in apprenticeship programmes by the end of this year. Meanwhile new research from AAT has shown that there are clear and significant business benefits for any organisation taking on an apprentice. So, the question is why more organisations aren’t taking advantage.

When it comes to apprenticeships, there are plenty of myths out there, particularly among small businesses that often fall in to the trap of thinking their business isn’t ready to take on an apprentice. Some employers also make the mistake of thinking an apprentice is a less attractive option than a graduate or fear high upfront investment before seeing any return. While there is some legitimacy to these concerns, in reality the case for apprentices is simple: they make good business sense.

The key concern for any company will of course be the potential cost involved. Particularly among small and medium sized businesses, an apprentice can look like a long term commitment that will require both time and money before they see any real benefit. While it is true that taking on an apprentice requires commitment from the employer, AAT’s research shows that companies receive an average bottom-line boost of £2,000 for every apprentice they take on, and that’s even before the apprentice is fully qualified. Aside from financial gains, research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shows that apprentices bring other valuable benefits; they improve productivity, product and service quality as well as company reputation.

The other good news is that there is significant financial support available for businesses taking on an apprentice. While the cost of training varies according to sector and apprentice type, in many cases the cost of training is fully or partly covered by the Government. Training costs are met in full for many 16-18 year olds while 50 per cent of the cost is covered for many 19-24 year olds. In addition to this, there are subsidies available, for example the AGE 16-24 Grant that supports businesses that would otherwise not be in a position to take on a trainee.

The ability to play a role in training up an apprentice is one of the greatest advantages as it puts your business in the driving seat. By taking on an apprentice, you are able to determine what qualifications they receive and which body will accredit them. This allows you to have a major say in the skills that your apprentice develops, allowing you to train someone to meet the specific needs of your business.

Another fear we have encountered when talking to businesses about apprenticeships is that, after all the investment has been put in, your apprentice will move on from your organisation before you have seen a full return. However, our research shows that apprenticeships breed loyalty and three quarters of successful apprentices have remained with the organisation that trained them after their apprenticeship is complete.

With such compelling business benefits to be gained, now is the time for organisations to see hiring an apprentice as a prime opportunity to cherry-pick the brightest and the best. It is the ideal way for any company, regardless of sector or size, to gain specific skills relevant to their business.

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