Apprenticeships have come a long way. These days you can sign up existing employees, and there’s no upper age limit. Apprentices can study for a degree and the Government will stump up 90% of the tuition fees in many cases. What’s not to like?

Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, the chances are that from time to time you will have struggled to find the right person for a job in your firm. It should be of some comfort to know that you’re not alone. The latest data shows that 59% of Cornish businesses currently recruiting have had trouble finding the right person..

Read the Cornwall Quarterly Economic Survey for the final quarter of 2018, and you’ll see comments like: “Our biggest issue is recruitment,” and “It’s difficult to find skilled managers in this industry and this area.”

Those are sentiments likely to strike a chord with many managers – whether they are running a small company they founded themselves or are in charge of HR at one of Cornwall’s bigger employers. Because while coming to live and work here is many people’s idea of living the dream, recruitment presents its own challenges for a host of reasons.

It’s fortunate, then, that Cornwall has a long and proud history of coming up with its own solutions and that the idea of ‘growing our own’ plays to our strengths. Growing our own skilled workers is tipped to be one of the key planks of developing the workforce – and integral to that will be apprenticeships.ding that I am now on course to complete my studies later this year.

The Apprentice – who knew?

  • People can study at all levels on apprenticeships – from courses equivalent to GCSEs right up to and including bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
  • There’s no age limit – by 2014 there were more than 140,000 apprentices aged 25+ and nearly 2,500 who were 60 or older!
  • Apprenticeships don’t just cover manual work. These days they come in all shapes and sizes, including digital media, business improvement, nursing, cyber security, engineering, finance … even costume design.
  • You don’t have to take on a new worker – existing employees can be signed up.
  • The Government will pay for up to 90% of the training costs – even more in some circumstances.

Apprenticeships have come a long way in the past half-century. Gone are the days of the apprentice being the sent down to the stores for a ‘long wait’ or a tin of ‘striped paint’. Apprenticeships now include work-based education placements ranging from less academic, vocational qualifications right up to a full bachelor’s or master’s degree. They’re as likely to be in subjects like digital marketing or nursing as they are in traditional core areas like engineering. And there’s plenty of funding available that can effectively become part of your training budget.

Recent surveys from Cornwall Chamber and the Skills Hub shed some light on the issues – whether real or perceived. One of the survey’s headlines was that 56 per cent of businesses had a shortage of highly-skilled workers, nearly half were lacking medium-skilled employees and 16% of firms had a shortage of low-skilled labour.

Three quarters of companies said they had identified a suitable training provider, but that left a quarter of firms which had identified a skills need but hadn’t so far been able to find a trainer to help them meet it. Large numbers of businesses also reported that they were not able to provide the level and kind of training they wanted – for several reasons.

The biggest single factor reported as contributing to the skills shortage in Cornish workplaces was time, with 30% of companies citing it as a barrier. That was followed by a financial barrier (20% of firms), and a lack of training providers (14%).

Comments cited in the survey included: “It is getting increasingly difficult to find people with anywhere near the right skills and the level of workload makes it hard to find the time for internal training,” “Definite lack of technical skills in Cornwall, for example coding, development, SEO,” and even “Big shortage in trade skills, for example electricians, plumbers.”

Josh Hoole, manager of Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Skills Hub, believes it would pay most companies to take another look at apprenticeships. He said: “The quality and scope of apprenticeships has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, and I would urge all businesses to take a fresh look at what’s on offer and factor that in to both their recruitment and their succession planning.

“It’s interesting to look at the barriers businesses say prevent them from taking on apprentices. Some of them are very real, and we understand those. But some of them are based on myth or a view of what apprenticeships were like a decade ago or more.

“Money is an issue for some people but, for smaller businesses who are not paying the apprenticeship levy, 90% of the training cost is covered by the Government. Of course there is the employee’s salary to cover and they do have to be released for training, but this is a fantastic investment in your workforce.

“We know from our research that 79% of businesses who take on an apprentice have done so before – they know it’s a good thing and are coming back for more.

“The schemes also clearly work well for the apprentices themselves because almost three quarters of them stay with their employer once they complete the training. Most apprentices are in it for the long term – they pick you as an employer as much as you pick them as an employee. Get the recruitment right and you could be looking at your managers of the future.”

One common misconception about apprenticeships is that they are only for school leavers. That’s simply no longer true – these days apprentices can be any age. It’s also possible to enrol existing employees. They remain on the same terms and conditions, although you must allow them to attend their training courses during the working day.

This generally works well for employers, because the apprentice’s learning is informed by standards set by people from within the industry. Networks of employers ensure that the skills, knowledge and behaviours required for a particular job are measured.
Josh Hoole said: “We’d be naïve to think that apprenticeships are a panacea for all the difficulties Cornish employers face, but I genuinely believe they provide an answer to many challenges faced by lots of companies.

“The Skills Hub can help people to navigate this landscape, and in my experience a good conversation early on can frequently address many of the issues would-be employers identify as barriers.”

Michelle Pearce is the practice director at Reed Robinson Layton (RRL), which was named SME Employer of the Year at the 2018 Cornwall Apprenticeship Awards. Michelle said: “Our apprenticeship programme is at the core of our growth strategy. By developing the next generation of staff from within the firm, to fulfil our growing business needs, we are future-proofing the organisation.

“Hiring an apprentice is a commitment. It requires an investment of time and a great deal of support, but the value an apprentice will add to your business in the long run will pay this back many times over, enabling you to train someone with the skills they need to become a valued and valuable team member.”

Perhaps the last word should go to Alisha Stone. She is an accountants assistant apprentice at RRL, and her loyalty is immediately apparent: “It is a fantastic place to undertake an apprenticeship,” she said.

“The collective help and support of everyone at the firm since I started training has increased my self-confidence and experience greatly. Having joined the firm straight after my A-Levels, it is extremely rewarding that I am now on course to complete my studies later this year.