In recent years, much has been done to address prevailing misconceptions of apprenticeships. Still, however, there is a need for us to continue to re-educate parents, schools and young people that an apprenticeship is a valid career option.

We must relay the message to employers – particularly smaller businesses – that hiring someone new to the world of work is a ‘risk’ worth taking. And it is important to promote the idea that apprenticeships may go some way to relieve the severe skills shortages in certain industries.

In sharing our experience of appointing our first apprentice, and exploring the views of others, we hope to contribute to this effort of realigning perceptions and dispelling myths.

An SME facing a skills shortage

Hireserve develops online recruitment software, with our recruitment system used by organisations across the world. Established in 1997, we’re still relatively small but have grown rapidly over the last 12 months.

We face the same dilemma that many UK tech firms are likely to be experiencing: It is challenging to find the skills we need in order to continue to grow. Who else is looking for front-end developers or applications developers?

The UK tech scene is growing at a rapid pace, and the ‘war for talent’ is a fiercely fought one. A recent report from the NCUB stated that 44% of UK tech firms planned to hire new staff in 2014* and we only expect that figure to rise in 2015.

There are two factors in this challenge. As a smaller business, we do not necessarily have the allure – or the visibility – of some larger players when it comes to attracting new team members.

The second issue is a shortage of relevant skills. The NCUB’s recent report looked at the high unemployment rates of Computer Science graduates. There appears to be a disconnect between the skills these graduates possess and the skills that employers need. Combined, we face a mix where existing talent it hard-fought over and new talent is not meeting expectations.

Using an apprenticeship to address this skills shortage

“The main reason that I wanted to become an apprentice was to get experience in an office and working environment while learning about software and web development. I did look at university but for me personally I wanted to go out and work.”

Lewis WrightTaking on an apprentice offered us the chance to grow our own talent. Lewis, quoted above (and pictured, right!), joined us towards the end of 2014, fresh from completing a BTEC in IT & Computing. It’s an investment, certainly – Lewis arrived with little knowledge of our product or sector, so has inevitably needed time and training to settle him in.

In return however, we are benefiting from a developing skill set that we would have otherwise struggled to recruit. We’re strengthening our team dynamic with a fresh perspective and enhancing other team members’ professional development by asking them to mentor and manage Lewis.

And, in establishing links with schools and colleges, we are building a local talent pipeline for future placements or job opportunities. Lewis is learning every day whilst really making a contribution to the business.

On its own, our story isn’t going to change opinions on apprenticeships.

But when delivered alongside other SME success stories, it can be a valuable tool to educate employers. And sharing Lewis’ views and promoting the opportunities he is experiencing with Hireserve may motivate other young people to consider an apprenticeship.

An apprenticeship is a great way to get experience within a working environment and is a great way to ease yourself into any industry… If you are a practical and hands on learner then an apprenticeship is definitely a good route to take.    – Lewis Wright, Hireserve Apprentice Web Developer

Using apprenticeships to create opportunities for young people

We can only speak from the perspective of a UK Tech SME, but have been fortunate to find out about others’ experiences. Most recently Liz Eddy, National Programme Manager at Health Education England, delivered a presentation at the Year Ahead Conference.

In the last 12 months, the NHS has created over 10,000 apprenticeships, in roles from health care assistants to plumbers. Eddy was a strong advocate of nurturing young talent, and was dismissive of the concerns that prevent some employers from embracing apprenticeship schemes.

‘We’re too busy!’ she proffered as a way of example, also citing concerns from her colleagues over young people’s attitudes to confidentiality and personal care.

Eddy countered that, instead of making an assumption about younger candidates, HR needs to make sure they’re asking the right questions to ascertain candidates’ understanding and values. She reiterated that it was important for young people to be given the right support from their line managers to help them adapt to working, and that it was crucial that support was also built-in for those managers.

Maggie Philbin, Chair of the UK Digital Skills Task Force and Founder of Teen Tech, who was kind enough to share her views on apprenticeships with us, also touched on the idea of the strengths young people can bring to an organisation.

The key thing is to understand the quality of the opportunity and the real character of the young person. Many thrive in an environment which treats them like an adult and also provides learning opportunities which are completely up to date.  – Maggie Philbin, Chair of UK Digital Skills Task Force and Founder of Teen Tech

Using apprenticeships to broaden horizons

At a local forum back in November, Philbin spoke passionately and eloquently about the lack of correlation between the curriculum and the skills young people need in order to transition into the workplace. She expands upon those thoughts for us here:

‘My work has shown me how even though parents and teachers want the very best for teenagers, they often provide incorrect or incomplete advice. There are certain subjects such as Maths, Physics, Engineering and Computing which act as springboards into a rich vein of career possibilities.

And although many consider University as an inevitable part of the education journey, they should be looking more broadly and taking a very serious look at some of the very good apprenticeships on offer.

What’s more taking the apprenticeship route isn’t a binary choice with doing a degree – many apprenticeships also lead to a degree… I’ve been so impressed by the confidence, maturity and ambition of the apprentices I have met.

It can be such a valuable pathway into many exciting opportunities.
– Maggie Philbin

Joining the dots between apprenticeships and education

Both Eddy and Philbin raised the need for embedding employability initiatives into our state education system. Young people are faced with this overwhelming Catch-22 – they need a job or placement to gain experience, but their options are limited because they have no experience.

We must bridge this gap between employers and schools in order to introduce children to the workplace at a much earlier age. It’s a topic that Karen has spoken about at HE level for the NCUB, and it is one of the reasons why we’re working with local charity, the Basingstoke Consortium on a number of projects to build links between local businesses and schools.

Let’s focus on getting employers into schools even earlier – catch children before they make their option choices; speak with careers advisors to offer an insight into what small business leaders are really looking for. Let’s open our doors to workshops, to open days, to work experience.   – Karen Ovenden, Operations Director at Hireserve

During Eddy’s presentation, she shared a statistic:

Young adults were asked if they remembered visits from employers and careers talks whilst they were at school. Those that remembered 4 or more visits were 5x less likely to be a NEET (not in education, employment or training).

How can businesses make a difference?

We can effect change by educating multiple audiences about the positive aspects of apprenticeships. We can share positive case studies, such as this one from award-winning IT support firm Littlefish, or our own. One of our customers, BRE, met the challenges of the Engineering skills shortage head on by developing its award-winning apprenticeship scheme.

As employers we can be proactive in establishing links between local schools, colleges and universities. Simply by presenting at a school assembly, we’re broadening young people’s horizons and opening the door to show a world outside of the classroom.

Great work is happening across the country to change perceptions of apprenticeships. The more businesses that can play a part in this, the better. Apprenticeships cannot solve every problem with regards to youth unemployment and skills gaps. And they are not for everyone – lest we forget the range of other options for school and college leavers.

But they’re certainly something to be celebrated, shared and shouted about.

If you are a small or large business – add your voice.

We need to start seeing young people as the solution, not the problem.
– Liz Eddy

*Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science – NCUB, 2015

About the author

Tristan Potter

Tristan has a decade's worth of experience writing content and copy for organisations across Bristol and the Southwest of England. He has written on a diverse range of topics, including technology, philosophy, politics, and recruitment. His writing has appeared in The Drum, HR Grapevine, and The Guardian, among other publications. He joined Hireserve in March 2022.