From education to employment

SMEs are key to unlocking apprenticeships for disadvantaged young people

Suzanne Slater, Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at NCFE

The sector needs to do more to reconnect with small and medium sized employers if we are to provide greater opportunities for 16-18 year olds, argues Suzanne Slater, Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at educational charity and leader in vocational and technical learning, NCFE.

I read something recently about apprenticeships being an emotionally led decision as opposed to a rational one. If it was rational, apprenticeships should be an absolute no brainer, and yet both learners and employers are still choosing different options when it comes to education and training.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the need to reform apprenticeships to make them more attractive – with a particular focus on bringing back the Level 2 Business Administration standard which was popular among SMEs who aren’t looking to take on specialists.

But if we, as a sector, want to truly reengage with SMEs then there’s much more that needs to be done. We already know that nearly twice as many over 25-year-olds are doing apprenticeships as under 19-year-olds, with larger businesses using apprenticeships to develop existing staff members.

So, what are the barriers for SMEs and what can we do about them?

One positive move announced this month saw the cap on apprenticeship starts for SMEs reset to zero, following pressure from the sector. This allows non-levy paying businesses to start up to 10 new apprentices, regardless of the number they currently have.

The decision by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) was made “in recognition of the important role that SMEs play in creating apprenticeship opportunities, particularly for younger people and those in disadvantaged areas.”

For the converted – those who were unfortunately having to turn apprentices away – this is great news and opens up more roles in those SMEs that understand the value of apprenticeships to fill their skills gaps. But what about those who don’t?

If we want to get under the skin of SMEs, we need to remove our personal bias and put ourselves in their shoes.  Decision makers have been under a huge emotional strain over the last few years as they navigated Brexit, Covid-19, and now the rising cost of goods and services.

Rational decisions around apprentices naturally fall to the bottom of the pile when organisations aren’t sure about their own long-term future.

SMEs who might be considering taking on an apprentice will also struggle to overcome hurdles if they don’t have the mental capacity or time. If the process becomes complicated or they receive a setback, even if it’s minor, good intentions will once again be relegated behind other needs.

There have been some signs for optimism. Earlier this year, government data showed apprenticeship starts in small employers had increased for the first time in five years – however they are still a long way behind pre-levy and pre-pandemic levels. The 12% increase from 2019-20 was also in contrast to the 5% decrease for medium sized employers over the same period.

The responsibility should fall on the sector to solve this, not businesses. At NCFE, we already support both learners and employers with end-point assessment through resources such as videos and guides to the end-to-end apprenticeship process, but we need to go deeper into the potential blockers from an SME’s perspective.

Let’s look at one aspect as an example: 20% off-the-job learning.

Despite being a statutory requirement for an English apprenticeship, we know it’s not always respected by employers. From their perspective, they are losing a fifth of their apprentice’s time – quite often one day each week.

As providers, we know the importance of this time to learners. It allows apprentices to gain a better understanding of wider industry knowledge and behaviours and develop transferable skills, it promotes lifelong learning, and provides access to peer networking and experienced trainers.

An apprentice can then bring all this back into the organisation to share best practice and new perspectives that an SME might not have previously considered. Rather than being dead time to an employer, it is valuable knowledge.

Employers need to be educated on the benefits that off-the-job learning brings to them, and not simply see it as one day a week when their apprentice can’t work. In a practical sense, this could be as simple as empowering their apprentice to regularly feedback on their learning and identify areas where the organisation could improve.

For a busy business, this link to external thinking and space for professional development could be invaluable.

But the question remains – are SMEs aware of the benefits an apprentice can bring to their business? And do they understand what they’ll be required to commit to and what support is available?

It isn’t just about SMEs taking a 16–18-year-old apprentice and being left to nurture and train them on their own. There’s a wealth of support out there from their training provider, awarding organisation, and end point assessment organisation – as well as a multitude of employer forums and groups.

This is about the sector connecting with SMEs and communicating to them the benefits of hiring an apprentice, supporting them through the recruitment process, and providing the guidance and structure that will bring the organisation to a place where the apprentice becomes a valuable asset.

We have talked previously about better careers advice and guidance for school leavers so they can make an informed decision, but what about advice and guidance for SMEs so they too have a choice and can make a rational decision about an apprentice?

The ESFA recently announced, as part of the draft 2023/24 funding rules, that initial assessment will become an eligible cost for funding. What about the recruitment of apprentices and support for employers, specifically SMEs? Should this become an eligible cost for funding as well?

Educating SMEs is a huge task but not one I feel we should be afraid of. As a sector, we need to speak to small and medium sized employers and understand why they’re reticent about taking on apprentices. What’s stopping them and how can we solve it?

While we want employers to focus on the many rational reasons for taking on an apprentice, for those that work in this area, the motivation is very much emotional. As the Education and Skills Funding Agency alluded to, we need to do this for disadvantaged young people who are simply looking for an opportunity.

By Suzanne Slater, the Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at the educational charity NCFE.

Suzanne Slater is the Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at the educational charity NCFE. Having formerly worked at the North East Chamber of Commerce, she moved into Further Education through roles at two colleges in the region before taking up her current position. Suzanne is passionate about the transformative impact apprenticeships can have on disengaged and disadvantaged young people.

Related Articles