Employers and apprentices come together in spring every year to mark National Apprenticeship Week, which this year is from 6-12 February. A series of online and in-person events are held across England to celebrate the benefits of apprenticeships and allow businesses to showcase the apprenticeship opportunities they have to offer.
Many traders start their careers as apprentices as it’s a direct route into trades such as carpentry, electrics, plumbing and more. Apprenticeships can create more motivated employees, help you get the right skills for your business and increase employee retention.
Nick Turner from Tincknell Heating in Wells, Somerset, said: ‘Our future is only as good as the people we employ. Training the apprentices to our requirements for the specific positions in our business is key to our success and theirs.’
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Our Which? Trusted Traders gave a range of reasons for taking on their apprentices – not least to give opportunities to young people wanting to learn a trade. For all of them, however, they thought it made good business sense.
It can be the best way to get staff who will work your way. Stewart Rychlinski from Stewart Brickwork Construction Ltd in Eastbourne, East Sussex, said he decided to take on an apprentice ‘to help enthusiastic individuals learn a trade and work for me in a manner that suited my approach to work and professionalism.’
Businesses sometimes struggle to find suitable employees, especially as they expand, so taking on an apprentice means you can create them.
‘We found it increasingly difficult to employ the skilled engineers we needed to secure our future,’ said Nick Turner. ‘Our apprenticeship scheme fills that gap and allows us to provide the necessary support, training and experience to our new apprentices.’
David Craven from Pro-Heat Plumbing & Heating Ltd in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, had similar reasons: ‘We needed extra labour as the business grew and wanted to develop employees to our high standards,’ he said.
As well as helping you develop the workforce you need, our traders have seen a number of other benefits to taking on apprentices.
Ian Mills from I Mills Electrics in Croydon, London, found it helped him develop too: ‘I’ve been challenged to think about the ways I currently do things and review my skill set,’ he said.
Having the extra staff also means you can deliver a better service to your customers. ‘It improved work turnaround and we could give more attention to detail,’ said David Craven.
The value apprentices add to your business grows the longer they’re with you, as Stewart Rychlinski found: ‘Initially the costs outweigh the benefits but over time, as the apprentice gains experience, they become much more of an asset to the business. It requires a great deal of patience at first but it’s been very rewarding for me to see them move on and become good tradesmen.’
Other benefits reported by the traders we heard from include being able to take on bigger jobs, boosting morale as employees can work in pairs, having employees with the correct mindset and a high level of training, and injecting youth into the business.
There are challenges too, of course. Finding the right person, jobs being slowed down when your apprentice is trying out their new skills, having to devote the time to teaching and supervising them, and getting them to a point where they don’t need instructions were among those mentioned by the traders we spoke to.
There’s plenty of government support for apprenticeships and technical training to help plug the skills gap found in so many trades.
Major changes to apprenticeship funding took place in 2017 with the start of the apprenticeship levy on large employers. The government’s Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education was created in the same year to work with employers and help regulate the quality of apprenticeships, along with the register of apprenticeship training providers.
And in 2021 a new government service launched to make it easier for large businesses paying the apprenticeship levy to transfer some of these funds to smaller businesses to help them create more opportunities for apprentices.
Although you have to pay your apprentice’s wages, you can get funding from the government to pay for their training and assessment, which works differently in different parts of the UK.
In England, if you’re a small business not paying the apprenticeship levy, you pay 5% towards the cost and the government pays the rest up to a set maximum, which depends on the training. It’s £9,000 for domestic plumbing and heating, for example. You may also be able to get an additional payment of £1,000 to help with costs, depending on the apprentice. This includes if they’re aged 16 to 18.
To find an apprentice you can advertise on the government’s Find an apprenticeship website (in England). Alternatively, you can use social media, open days, visits to colleges or careers events. There are also apprenticeship agencies that will recruit and employ apprentices on your behalf.
You can find out more about employing apprentices and funding on Gov.uk.
Some of the traders we spoke to found dealing with the paperwork involved tricky, such as David Craven: ‘There wasn’t very much help or guidance given and we missed out on a government payment scheme,’ he said.
With support, though, others found the process straightforward: ‘It can be difficult to understand at first, but with the help and support of the college support team, which in our case has been exceptional, any issues were easily overcome,’ said Nick Turner.
Stewart Rychlinski also had a good experience and said it was ‘a little tedious, however all the paperwork was taken care of with my first apprentice so thankfully I wasn't put off taking another one on. I've managed to take on four apprentices since my business started up.’
It’s important to choose the right person – someone who is fully committed to learning your trade – and the right college, as its support can be invaluable.
It’s also not something to be entered into lightly. ‘This is a long-term commitment, not only for the apprentice but also for the future of your business – think hard before making the decision to take on an apprentice,’ advised Nick Turner.
However, most of our Which? Trusted Traders felt that taking on an apprentice was good for their business and well worth the effort involved.