Apprentices – How to Make them work…

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Only this week I was having an engaging conversation over dinner with a business owner who was debating the values of hiring an apprentice. He has a small business, which he is hoping to expand and saw the need to ensure that any new members of the team would embrace his company’s culture and values. In doing so, he was flipping between the choice of hiring someone with experience on the one hand and a school-leaver on the other. Whilst some had suggested he opt for a candidate with a proven track record, his instinct was telling him that an apprentice was the right way forward. However, he was unsure what this would entail.

With it being National Apprenticeship Week next week and having previously been a family business owner who regularly took on apprentices I was able to relate to our own experience and thought I’d share some of my views.

Do your preparation

Apprentices can be absolutely invaluable to a business, but they have to be introduced correctly and strongly supported in the business. It is important to realise that apprenticeships place a demand on the employer and apprentices will only benefit if this demand is embraced and the effort is made throughout their journey.

The demand begins before the apprentice even starts – apprenticeships involve formal training and the business must be aware of the training route, qualification and training provider that the apprentice will be enrolled with. There may also be government funding available to offset the training costs, so make sure you know what this is and how to access it.

Be constantly on the lookout for talent

Use social media to promote your search and consider talking to schools to explore options to get in front of their students. Also, don’t forget to keep an eye out for talent. Maybe you observed someone at an eating establishment with an exemplary attitude? Pass them a business card or even better have a set of cards made specifically for this purpose. Examples include “Eagle Cards” to give out to those observed in such a way and seen to be potential “high flyers” (these are suitable for any potential employee not simply apprentices).

Get the best!

Once your business is ready to recruit, you then need a structured approach to finding the right young mind for the opportunity. Have a selection process involving interviews with questions tailored to the fact that apprentices will likely have little work experience to draw on. Focus on establishing what drives them, what they want to achieve, how they think this opportunity will help and what they want to gain from it. You can use tests to profile their personality and ascertain basic comprehension skills – Just because an apprentice may not be entering higher education doesn’t mean they won’t be bright, and ideally you want to find someone with a spark which you can ignite. However, their attitude is absolutely key, so use the interview process to ascertain this.

Set Expectations and Goals

As part of the above process the requirements of the apprenticeship should be laid out clearly – why you want to take them on, how their learning will be structured, what standards you are looking for, your company values and ultimately where you want them to fit in the business. Elements of this will then be formalised in an apprenticeship agreement.

Immediately the apprentice is on board, set and document goals and timeframes. Structure is especially important for someone who has just left school, so support and guidance will help ensure an apprentice doesn’t feel overwhelmed. They will need the appropriate time for the training and coursework, and this also provides an opportunity for the business to support their progress – ask them how it is going and make sure they feel comfortable to discuss their training journey. Aim for them to succeed but also be prepared for them to make mistakes and have to learn from this.

The benefits

The opportunity to guide and mentor a young person allows you to not only foster a spirit which supports your company culture but will also help you to formulate the direction of your business. To support an apprentice throughout their learning, you also need to consider your business direction and plans. If you committed to having a role for the apprentice, then plan for that role. Budget accordingly. Ensure the team knows how and where the apprentice will eventually fit in.

Other benefits include the positivity and goodwill generated with potential suppliers and customers once they realise you support an apprenticeship. It will also demonstrate to your colleagues that you are taking a long-term approach to building the business. Moreover, if your company values espouse staff development, an apprenticeship really helps to underline this commitment. You have a fantastic opportunity to develop someone with the skills required by your business and tailor them to the needs of your company.

But what if they leave?

Something you have to understand is that a trained apprentice may be tempted to leave after they have completed their programme. However, if you have supported throughout, set clear goals and facilitated their journey to give them a full-time role on completion then I believe you will have nurtured loyalty which will encourage them to stick with you.

It is important to remember not to treat them as cheap labour – a mistake that is sometimes made. Additionally, whilst there is a minimum wage for an apprentice this is a minimum and if they start to perform or you can quickly see their potential, then don’t simply keep them at a minimum rate – pay more! Don’t fall into a trap of taking them for granted only to be surprised when they leave!

Summary

An apprentice scheme is not an easy route to cheap labour – it is a demanding but potentially fantastically rewarding opportunity to inject fresh enthusiastic talent into a business. With the right approach both the apprentice and business can reap the rewards and the journey can pay dividends, but don’t be fooled – as with most things in life, doing it right isn’t without its challenges.