From education to employment

It’s never been more important to get apprenticeships to work for small businesses… and here’s how

Anthony Impey

I’ve always believed that the best businesses are built by investing and growing their own talent.  It’s meant that apprenticeships have always played a big part in the organisations that I’ve started and scaled, as well as contributing to their success.

It’s this experience that has led me to get involved in helping more small businesses to use apprenticeships as a key component to drive their performance, competitiveness, and productivity. 

As businesses begin to get back on their feet after the toughest two years in living memory, it’s crucial that we make sure that apprenticeships really work for every business.  With access to labour consistently cited as one of the largest barriers to growth, there is a huge need to improve output with existing resources.  Apprenticeships are essential in achieving this. 

But for apprenticeships to drive recovery and growth in the post-pandemic economy, three things need to happen:

1. The system must be easy to navigate

Business owners are the busiest people I know.  Even before the pandemic, many worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day.  Since the pandemic, they’re working even harder. Time is a luxury many simply don’t have. It means that they don’t have the headspace to understand the range of different options and processes involved in starting an apprenticeship in their organisation.  This is not about simplifying the range of options… the UK has a complex economy, and it stands to reason that we should have a skills system to match.  It is about making it easy for leaders and managers of businesses to navigate the system so that they can quickly get to the option that’s the right fit for their organisation.

2. There needs to be collaboration between large and small employers

There also needs to be a better diffusion of best practice, capabilities and capacity between large apprentice employers and smaller businesses.  This is already happening through the levy transfer.  One hospitality business in Devon told me how their bounce back from a torrid eighteen months was stopped in its tracks because they’d reached their maximum allowance of apprentices, until they were able to access levy transfer.  Even more could be done though to help small businesses in supply chains, local areas and industry sectors with recruitment, bespoke training, buying power with suppliers, and quality assurance.

3. There must be a better understanding of small businesses

And finally, the understanding of the small business market needs overhauling.  I have long been frustrated by the term “SME” to describe a massively complex and diverse market.  To lump all businesses that employ under 250 people into a single homogenous category grossly oversimplifies the market.  There needs to be much greater recognition of the different types of businesses and how to categorise them according to their different requirements.  At Be the Business, we have done exactly this, by developing one of the most advanced segmentations of the small business market, based on behavioural economics and leadership characteristics.  A culture driven leader will be driven by creating opportunities for people to succeed. They would approach apprenticeships differently to a leader driven by performance goals, or those who like their ideas to be challenged.  Segmenting in this way allows for much more effective engagement than blanket messages to every SME.

If we can make it easier for small businesses to navigate the skills landscape; if we can drive greater collaboration between large and small employers; and if we can apply a better understanding of the small business market, then we can expect to see apprenticeships playing an even greater role in boosting small business performance, competitiveness, and productivity. 

Anthony Impey is Chief Executive of Be the Business, a not-for-profit organisation that works with small businesses to help boost productivity and Chair of both the government’s Apprenticeship Ambassador Network and the City & Guilds’ Industry Skills Board.

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