We’re in danger of ruining apprenticeships

It’s time we talked about apprenticeships. Why? Because every day I receive dozens of calls, emails and LinkedIn messages like this one:

I trust you are well and keeping busy.

Just a quick question, does your company or anyone you know use or require apprentceships or traineeships? I’m in a position to supply some if required (Apprentices £2.73 an hour, Trainees £20.00 a week for 35 hours) if you’re interested drop me a line, if not thanks for reading the message.

Setting aside the poorly written email and the inability to spell ‘apprenticeship’ correctly, these emails highlight the central problem with how apprenticeships are being sold. There’s no discussion of the benefits that an apprentice can offer my company. No sense of why an apprentice might want to work at Big Bite. Instead, apprentices are being sold as cheap labour. I’m interested in the value of people.

We’ve had two apprentices here at Big Bite and both have been a resounding success. Not because they cost less than a supermarket sandwich, but because they were enthusiastic, talented individuals that added value to our company in exchange for our investment of time and effort. Both are now trusted full-time team members who can boast of an enviable start to their careers. They’re also better qualified, more experienced, and more employable than the majority of university graduates we interview, with the added benefit of saving themselves £27k of tuition fees in the process. Now that’s value.

I’m thrilled by the increasing adoption of apprenticeships by companies like ours, and I am proud to see that the poor reputation they once had is being left behind. As people question the real-world value of a university education more closely in the face of skyrocketing costs, practical learning and on-the-job training are on the verge of resurgence. And so they should be. Private and governmental support of these programs should be championed, but the wealth of unprofessional or downright shady organisations — with attitudes like that of the above message — are in danger of poisoning the well.

This ‘cheap labour’ attitude risks creating a situation where supply outstrips demand. Where we farm endless apprentices with little concern for quality or whether it’s a career path that actually works for them. Pushing as many people as possible through apprenticeships without considering whether they’re right for the job role first. This price-point sales tactic may enrich the apprentice placement agencies pushing it, but it’ll only devalue the idea of apprenticeships in the eyes of businesses, in much the same way university degrees have been. The result of all this for candidates will be that they’ll never become real employees, never pick up the industry-specific skills they need, and spend their time making coffee. I can make my own coffee thank you very much, and it’ll leave apprentices a lot less bitter about their experience of the job market.

There are plenty of benefits and bonuses that come with hiring apprentices of course. The £1500 grant given to small and medium-sized businesses who take on 16-24 year old apprentices helped us to cover the hardware costs of providing Macs and workstations, whilst the assertion that an apprentice can be up to 75% more cost-effective than recruiting graduates or more experienced staff offers a compelling return on investment. But it’s important to keep in mind that it does require a considerable investment on the business’ part, primarily of time.

Every person we hire at Big Bite, we take on with the intention of making them a full-time team member, and this is reflected in our apprentice salary which is significantly higher than the minimum £2.73. The time and effort we invest in their training is not just about filling seats or skill gaps, it’s about guiding and developing talented people to become an integral part of our company. It allows us to avoid learned bad habits and ensure that every new skill is up to date and relevant now. It creates a company culture that combines experience and energy, evolution and revolution, the old and new schools. Put simply, we invest in their future and they invest in ours.

So until I start receiving emails like this…

Dear Iain,

Have you discovered how hiring an apprentice could benefit your company? Apprenticeships can fill specific skill requirements, expand your talent pool, and create enthusiastic employees dedicated to your company’s success, whilst also being 75% more cost-effective than the graduate recruitment process. You invest your time and they invest in your company’s future.

If you’d like more information on how an apprentice can benefit your business…

…you better believe that each offer of cheap labour in my inbox will be getting a link to this article in response.