01 March 2018

Time for your small business to take on an apprentice?

The NHS is the UK’s largest employer. Here Laira Pearson, Development Facilitator across two NHS trusts, explains why taking on an apprentice makes good sense for any business.

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Since April 2017, employers with a wage bill of £3m a year or more have had to pay 0.5% of their pay bill into the apprenticeship levy. The funds go into an online account, which the Government tops up by 10%. Public sector organisations are required to have 2.3% of their workforce enrolled in an apprenticeship at any time in accordance with the Enterprise Act 2016.

Laira Pearson is the apprenticeships lead for two NHS trusts - Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and Taunton & Somerset NHS Foundation Trust. As the levy’s largest contributor, drawing on the fund to train existing staff and develop new employees with essential skills is vital.

Apprenticeship benefits

An ageing workforce increases the risks associated with retirement and, for the NHS, being able to attract a younger generation is helpful. “The apprenticeship route has given us a pathway from school or college into the NHS for the first time. Previously the NHS has been a place where experience has been sought so you were effectively barring a person fresh out of school or college from applying,” explains Pearson.

“Young apprentices come with lots of new ideas and approaches to technology and as an organisation with an ageing workforce that is very valuable to us. We’re able to shape them into working in our organisation in the way that we need. It has been really valuable to us in engaging young people in careers in health,” she adds.

Existing employees can be enrolled in an apprenticeship. One of the benefits this has given, Pearson says, is creating a pathway between being a support worker and becoming part of the registered workforce. “There has been a two-tier system and it has been hard for healthcare assistants to break through that ceiling into registered professions without leaving and going to university. For those with families, mortgages and bills to pay this was a massive challenge financially. The concept of returning to study was out of reach, but apprenticeships have enabled fully-funded work-based learning for aspirational colleagues.”

Apprenticeship lessons for smaller employers

While there is no requirement for smaller businesses to pay into the levy or have a percentage of its workforce enrolled in apprenticeships, the levy scheme can still be drawn on by smaller employers, giving them access to cheaper training. Some apprenticeships are eligible for 100% of the training funding up to a maximum of £27,000. To find out more about the rules for accessing funding read Taking on an apprentice: 20 things you might not know.

Pearson says there has been a shift in the way apprenticeships are designed and delivered to make them more employer-led than they were previously. “Apprenticeships are now built in such a way that you can influence what the learning looks like. The education establishments providing the training are really geared up to support businesses with making an apprenticeship fit business needs.”

She advises looking at your current workforce and considering whether there is a direction your business is moving in, or that you would like it to move in, that you don’t have the right skills for and considering how an apprentice could support that.

Although an apprenticeship offers access to cost effective training, employers should be aware that 20% of an apprentice’s time has to be spent in learning activity. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to go to college, but they are in a development role. “The employer has to understand that, out of a five-day week, for one of those days the employee won’t be working because they will be involved in learning activity,” adds Pearson.

Want to know more about apprenticeships?

Pearson recommends searching the GOV.UK website for an education provider. “Think ‘what do we need’ and then talk to some education providers about how that might get off the ground and what it might look like in reality.”

Overall, Pearson would advise business owners to look into apprenticeships further. “It is about people reaching their potential and the business reaching its potential. If a business is not paying into the levy, it is still going to be the cheapest education you can get. It is really about harnessing and exploiting that to make sure your team is ready for the next phase of the business,” she stresses.

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