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Ten steps to making apprenticeships work in a small business

Many small businesses think they don’t have time or resources to support an apprentice, but in fact taking one on can help grow your business, if it’s done in the right way. 

17th Oct 2019
Founder Optimity
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Engineer Showing Apprentice How To Use CNC Tool Making Machine
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As a small business owner, I know only too well that there is never enough time.

The day-to-day necessities of running a business consume every waking hour, leaving little or no room to work on those projects that you would love to do but never quite find the time. Small businesses often give this reason for not hiring an apprentice.

Research by the Federation of Small Businesses earlier this year confirms that management time is one of the most significant challenges that small businesses have with engaging with apprenticeships, with nearly one in three businesses reporting this as an issue. Another survey three years ago painted a very similar picture.

Setting out what’s expected of the apprentice, and the need to balance earning with learning, is crucial to achieving a return on investment as soon as possible.

There are many small businesses that do champion apprenticeships, however, and report positive results for their organisations.  

This raises the question: are apprenticeships a big burden on small businesses or is this a misguided perception?

In my experience, those small businesses that get great results from hiring apprentices do so by following a series of practical steps that are not wildly different from the systems and processes used for their other employees.

While there is a degree of adaptation to support apprentices, this extra effort is offset by the return on investment that begins, for some organisations, as quickly as three months after the apprentice starts.

Step #1: identify the business case for hiring an apprentice

It’s important that there is a solid business need driving the use of an apprenticeship, whether it’s to build the skills needed instead of hiring expensive fully-trained individuals, to develop your competitive advantage through building your own talent or to offer career progression for your existing team.

Step #2: adapt the recruitment process

For apprentices that are starting their first job, a traditional interview may not be the best approach to identify the most suitable candidates.

Simulated work, team exercises and even saying an interview is a mock interview, often produces better results.  

Step #3: kick-start with a tailored induction

While some small businesses may only have a very simple induction process for new team members, it’s essential to have one specifically for an apprentice.

Setting out what’s expected of the apprentice, and the need to balance earning with learning, is crucial to achieving a return on investment as soon as possible.

Step #4: set objectives

As with any member of a team, objectives that stretch and develop an apprentice will underpin their performance.

Linking objectives to their studies will further accelerate the rate that they start adding value.

Step #5: commit to the process of learning

As with many things, you get out what you put into an apprenticeship.

For employers, this means providing apprentices with the time and opportunity they need to study, whether that’s learning from others in the workplace or studying with fellow apprentices in a classroom.

With technology enabling many apprentices to study whenever and wherever, learning can be fitted to suit the unpredictable nature of many jobs.

At the same time, allowing apprentices to put what they have learnt into practice will help reinforce their knowledge and accelerate their positive impact.

Step #6: surround your apprentice with great people

If the size of your team will allow, there are three key roles that will help an apprentice thrive in your workplace:

  • A line manager who understands what the apprentice is studying and champions their development.
  • Someone who can mentor the apprentice’s professional development.
  • A peer who can provide practical support and advice to the apprentice.

The benefit of this is felt not just by the apprentice – those that support apprentices often say how much it has driven their own professional development.

Step #7: work with your training provider

Large employers with several apprentices are able influence the type of training they receive from a training provider.

While smaller organisations lack the scale to do this, they can still build a close relationship with their training provider with regular two-way communication about the progress of their apprentice and the content of the training.  

This will ensure that there is always a close connection between what is learnt off-the-job and on-the-job.

Step #8: get feedback

Regular feedback from your apprentice will enable you to refine and adapt their development and improve the rate at which they build new skills.  

Encouraging their involvement in peer and membership networks, such as the Young Apprentice Ambassador Network, will also empower them to believe their voice matters.

Step #9: foster wellbeing

We know only too well the stresses that can build-up in the workplace. For apprentices, this can be magnified by having to juggle work commitments with learning responsibilities, no matter where they are in their careers.

The transition from school, college or university to an apprenticeship can be very challenging while existing team members who are doing an apprenticeship to upskill may struggle to start learning if they’ve been away from education for some time.  

Being sensitive to these issues and making support easily available will make a huge difference.

Step #10: celebrate success

As your apprentice undertakes their journey and develops new capabilities, it’s important to recognise their progress and celebrate their successes. After all, everyone loves a party!

Interested in this topic? Read Six steps to better learning and development for small businesses.

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