Could apprentices help your company grow?

Sam WilliamsFrom tackling skills shortages to injecting new ideas into a business, apprenticeships could help firms claw their way out of recession. SAM WILLIAMS reports as the country marks National Apprenticeship Week.Sam Williams

From tackling skills shortages to injecting new ideas into a business, apprenticeships could help firms claw their way out of recession. SAM WILLIAMS reports as the country marks National Apprenticeship Week.

Suffering skills shortages, poor staff retention or the loss of large numbers of workers to retirement, many companies are crying out for new talent.

And business leaders are being urged to consider apprentices as a possible solution to their problems as the country marks National Apprenticeship Week.

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While the traditional image of an apprentice is of teenagers taking up a trade such as plumbing or construction, the range of apprenticeships has soared in recent years.

Currently 40 to 50 courses are on offer in Norfolk and 190 nationally, and the government plans to boost the numbers of people on apprenticeships, which currently stands at about 240,000.

Apprenticeship schemes combine work-based experience with training, carried out at the employer or at educational institutions, and enable young people to develop new skills while earning a wage.

Available to school leavers, college students and adults, they range from engineering courses to beautician training, business administration and pharmacy.

And while the number of courses offered in some areas has fallen in the recession, in others the number has remained buoyant.

Jon Nay, East of England regional apprenticeship director for the National Apprenticeship Service, said he was expecting the same number of apprentices to start courses in the current academic year as last year, at about 19,000.

And he said the benefits apprentices could bring to businesses would help firms succeed in the economic recovery.

He said: 'Overall we are running at about the same level as last year, which is really good. More companies are taking on apprentices.

'We would have hoped to have more vacancies but that's the recession.

'The fact we are doing as well as last year suggests we are making a difference. Companies are pulling out the stops to move themselves out of recession.

'Taking on an apprentice is not only good for the apprentice but good for the company. Apprentices pay back the company's investment very quickly into their training.'

He added he had seen increased take up of apprenticeships in upholstery, business administration, customer services and pharmacy, moving away from the 'narrow focus' of apprenticeships in engineering and construction.

He added: 'Apprenticeships seem to be flavour of the month and there is a lot of talk about bringing them back. They never went away, but people are much more aware of them and more people are doing them.'

As well as greater loyalty from apprentices - aiding staff retention - Mr Nay said the age profile of many companies was a cause for concern, for which apprentices offered a possible solution.

He added: 'A large proportion of the workforce is going to retire in the next 10 years, and many companies are seriously concerned.

'And apprenticeships are one way to get young people coming into the company. These companies often see apprentices as the middle managers of the future.'

Among the companies which have looked to apprentices as a solution to an ageing workforce is Norwich-based electric motor manufacturer ATB Laurence Scott.

Managing director Ian Atkins said apprentices were important to the company to replace skills and personnel lost through staff retiring and to grow the company.

The company currently has 16 apprentices out of a total work force of 185, six of whom were taken on in 2009.

Mr Atkins said: 'We have got to preserve the skills and capability of the company. Not unlike many engineering companies we have an ageing workforce and we need to be able to train and replace people who are inevitably going to retire.

'Firstly we need to train apprentices and replace skills, and also to start building the company for the future.'

And he said the specialist skills required by the firm were difficult to find without offering training.

'We are somewhat unique in this area and the skills we need are quite difficult to get. It is possible but finding the right skilled labour takes time. If we can, we prefer to train our own people, in co-operation with local agencies such as EAGIT, in engineering apprenticeships and keep them for the future.'

But other areas have seen a reduction in the number of apprenticeships being offered.

David Shorten, chief executive of training provider EAGIT, which runs apprenticeship courses in mechanical and electrical engineering, fabrication and welding in partnership with employers, currently has 400 apprentices and advanced apprentices on its books.

While the longer advanced apprenticeships, usually offered by bigger employers, had been relatively unaffected in the recession, the Level 2 apprenticeships offered mainly by small and medium sized businesses had seen a 30pc dip.

And he urged smaller businesses to think about taking on apprentices.

He said: 'The reason for the fall is smaller employers not having the confidence to invest and take people on.

'We have seen an improvement in the number of people considering taking on apprentices but not in uptake as yet, but we hope to see that improve in 2010.

'I would urge companies to seriously consider an apprenticeship programme bearing in mind the wealth of evidence showing that it promotes better productivity, staff retention and engagement.

'Apprentices are home-grown skills. The skills and qualifications they achieve match the needs of the company. They will help the company develop, as well as developing in themselves.'

Despite the fall in demand among smaller businesses, figures from Semta, the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, show the number of 16 to 24-year-olds starting engineering apprenticeships has increased 10pc in the past 12 months.

And in other areas apprenticeships are becoming more popular.

Norfolk County Council, which currently employs 10 apprentices, this week announced plans to increase that number to 50 by the end of March 2011.

Chief executive David White said: 'It is a win-win for both parties. The apprentice can find out if it's the kind of work they want to do, and as a public service we get to put something back.

'As an employer you get an extra pair of hands. That's why we are really keen to expand it.

'Apprentices may not have experience but they have got clear ambition and bring a fresh perspective to the employer.'

Case study - the best of both worlds

Anthony Whales, 22, from Hellesdon, finished a four-year advanced apprenticeship at Archant Print in October 2008, a year early.

And as well as leading to a full time job, Mr Whales said it had also led to further training at the company, the printing arm of Evening News publisher Archant.

Mr Whales, now an electrical engineer at the company's Norwich Print Centre in Thorpe, is currently studying for a BA in leadership and management with the Open University, funded by the company.

Mr Whales said: 'I finished my A levels at the sixth form at Hellesdon High School and didn't know what I wanted to do. Starting an apprenticeship was a great move as I have now got a full time, well paid job that I enjoy doing.

'The company has also funded a degree so I get the best of both worlds, with no student debt and a trade to fall back on.'

Case study - apprenticeship helped me find a career I love

After leaving school at 16, Lorna Boldero struggled to find work.

But in May last year the former Costessey High pupil seized the opportunity to take up an apprenticeship in health and social care with Norfolk County Council, working at Somerleyton House care home.

Her role involves speaking with elderly and disabled residents, and communicating through sign language, making cups of tea and cleaning.

The apprenticeship will end on her 18th birthday next month, after which she will be offered relief work.

Miss Boldero said she enjoys helping other and plans to continue caring for older people in her career or train to be a nurse in a hospital.

She said: 'I got quite frustrated because I couldn't find a job after leaving school so I was really pleased to find this opportunity.

'It's a really good job and it makes me feel good about myself and when I go home it makes me think I have done something good today.

'I look forward to coming to work.'

Apprenticeships - the facts

t Apprenticeships offer an opportunity to gain qualifications and practical skills in the workplace. Apprentices also earn a wage while they complete their training.

t There are currently 240,000 apprentices in the UK.

t There are more than 190 apprenticeship courses on offer nationally, including about 50 in Norfolk.

t Courses range from engineering and construction to business administration, health and social care and pharmacy, and usually take between one and three years to complete.

t Until the end of March, the National Apprenticeship Service will provide grants of �2,500 to up to 5,000 employers who take on apprentices aged 16 to 17.

For more information visit the National Apprenticeship Service website