National Apprenticeship Week 2016: Time to Find an Apprentice

This week marks the ninth annual National Apprenticeship Week. Running from 14th - 18th March, the week acts as a call to arms not only for employers to invest in these vacancies, but also for apprentices to see for themselves just how effective an apprenticeship can be for their career.

Coordinated by the National Apprenticeship Service, National Apprenticeship week will celebrate the positive impact such schemes can have on employers, candidates and the wider economy. Throughout the five days, hundreds of events are expected to take place to champion the benefits of apprenticeships. Here, we take a look at the history of the campaign and why it is important for employers and apprentices.

The greatest asset any employer has is their workforce, and by investing in them, they are investing in the success and the future of their business.

What is National Apprenticeship Week?

In conjunction with the Skills Funding Agency, National Apprenticeship Week is a major drive to heighten the awareness of apprenticeships and their value to employers, candidates and the economy. Following on from its sister event in Scotland which took place between 29th February - 4th March, National Apprenticeship Week will see the spotlight focus on what can be achieved by highlighting the benefits of apprenticeship schemes. 
Activities will spring up throughout the country, hosted by employers, colleges, training organisations and apprentices - all showcasing how big a role apprenticeships play in both increasing productivity and upskilling employees. 

The aim of these is not just to drive the creation of new apprenticeships. It will also draw attention to existing programmes, which the Skills Funding Agency say amounts to over 1,500 job roles in sectors encompassing the likes of Nuclear, Fashion, Banking and Defence. Levels of apprenticeships differ too, and include intermediate, advanced, higher and degree.

Hundreds of events and activities will take place during the week. In the run-up to the week, employers have been given an abundance of ideas for activities, how to create excitement for an event, the way to use social media to promote this, along with resources to help put on an effective event. MPs too are encouraged to get involved in events by shadowing apprentices, which helps to gain maximum exposure. 

Each year sees a different theme of focus. In 2015, SMEs were encouraged to hire apprentices and highlight the range of apprenticeships on offer. In 2016, the theme is "An apprentice can take you anywhere," with a focus "on higher skills to show how young people, entrepreneurs and businesses can 'rise to the top' through traineeships and apprenticeships."

The effectiveness of National Apprenticeship Week is obvious when the statistical impact of the week is taken into account. A Skills and Funding Agency spokesperson said that during the 2015 equivalent, the number of pledges made to apprenticeships increased - with over 24,000 made. In addition, there were in excess of 1,000 phone calls to the employer call centre - a 50% rise, and vacancies posted in March 2015 shot up by 26% in comparison to 2014. 

Sue Husband is the Director of the National Apprenticeship Service and she outlined to Agency Central the service that National Apprenticeship Week provides. "Both employers and their apprentices have a great opportunity to step into the spotlight during National Apprenticeship Week, to help us show how an apprenticeship really can take you anywhere. National Apprenticeship Week celebrates how apprenticeships can help individuals and businesses achieve their ambitions of 'rising to the top'." 

The week and its events are effective for a multitude of reasons that make employers and candidates happy. Andrew Dark of Custom Planet explained the increase in candidate quality since the establishment of National Apprenticeship Week - something he believes is 'no coincidence'. 

He said: "We find National Apprenticeship Week really important and a great promotion for apprenticeships. It's not only good for employers in terms of showing them the benefits, but also it's a great way to show potential apprentices the advantages of becoming an apprentice and what it can lead to, which in turn leads to better candidates coming forward.

"Since we started recruiting apprentices, we have seen the pedigree increase year on year and it's no coincidence that events like National Apprenticeship Week are really making a difference."

Statistics on apprenticeship starts show a 14% increase in 2014 / 15 in comparison with the year before - this amounts to 499,900 starts in England.


An apprenticeship is a well-known route to a career for those whose skills are outside of the classroom. They are full-time paid jobs that give candidates on and off the job training, resulting in a recognised qualification at the conclusion of the contract. As Skills Minister Nick Boles said: "If university graduates have their moment in the sun, so should people who undertake apprenticeships." 

They allow people to get into their desired careers and the courses give a thorough education of learning the skills and crafts needed to succeed. Moreover, young people who enrol on apprenticeship schemes not only get the security of a salary, but they have a recognised qualification that helps to drive both the economy and their own ambitions for the future. It is important to add however, that apprenticeships are also popular with those on degree courses, while apprentices do not stop at school leavers - the demographic is changing, with older age ranges using apprenticeships as a valuable career route.  

The way apprenticeships are viewed is changing. In 2009, the then-government introduced new legislation to change the status of apprentices. David Hession, Employment Law Solicitor at Simpson Millar Solicitors LLP, told Agency Central that as long as requirements are met, apprentices are designated as employees. He explained: "To benefit from this (legislation), employers need to put in place an apprenticeship agreement; this must be in a prescribed form and state that it is entered into in connection with a qualifying apprenticeship framework."

The perception of apprentices is changing all the time too. Indeed, David says that any performance reviews now have to be treated exactly the same way as employees, as both are deemed the same - "so the normal rules apply."

The encouragement for people to treat apprenticeships as a valuable career tool has never been higher. Since last year's General Election, it has been a fundamental part of the government's drive to increase employment in the country. This commitment is confirmed in the government's Enterprise Bill, which is currently going through the parliamentary procedure on its way to becoming law. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Sajid Javid, says the Bill will: "protect the 'apprenticeship' brand."

The Enterprise Bill seeks to underline and magnify the significance of apprenticeships and it will encourage public sector bodies to increase their apprentice intake. Just as significant are the efforts to protect the term 'apprenticeship' by law, which will strengthen it as a career choice and ensure it is seen as an equally important career route to higher education. 

Crucially, the government will be able to act if the term is used to promote low quality courses. In the past, employers could benefit by claiming to offer an apprenticeship, even though it may not be of the quality expected. This could have a dangerously negative impact on reputation and career, which is why the government has taken such measures. 

It is all part of the wider one nation government pledge to create three million apprenticeships by 2020, and Prime Minister David Cameron underlined this commitment in August 2015. He said: "The greatest asset any employer has is their workforce, and by investing in them, they are investing in the success and future of their business. As a one nation government, we are committed to supporting three million quality apprenticeships over the next five years - to help strengthen our economy, deliver the skills that employers need and give millions more hardworking people financial security and a brighter future."

An apprenticeship levy will be introduced in April 2017, which will see large companies invest in an overall fund that will be used to train workers. Applicable for those whose annual company bills exceed £3 million, the idea is that it will help to increase productivity by investing in people, developing their skills - which will result in an overall increase in apprenticeship quality.

They (apprenticeships) are an important part of addressing a workforce strategy; companies gain in-house, long-term insurance against ageing workforces.

Historical significance of apprenticeships

National Apprenticeship Week is driving forward the popularity of this type of employment in a very encouraging fashion. Statistics on apprenticeship starts show a 14% increase in 2014 / 15 in comparison with the year before - this amounts to 499,900 starts in England. Participation was also up in that time. The 2% rise means that the number of people on apprenticeships in any given year is now 871,800. The highest category of starts was by people aged 25 and over, with 214,000 recorded. It shows that people can apply for apprenticeships later on in their life if they feel a change in career path is necessary. 

Even though this year was the first since 2011 / 12 that saw an increase in new apprenticeship starts, the numbers have been impressive since 2009 / 10, with each year comfortably exceeding 400,000 new starts. Between 2009 / 10 and 2010 / 11, the number of new starts leapt up by almost 200,000. The rise coincides with the need to increase levels of staff after the recession. The challenge caused by the skills shortage has been debated on these pages previously, and it is easy to see why some organisations feel apprenticeships are the best way to bridge this gap in the long term. 

This sentiment is echoed by Justine Fosh, the CEO of the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink (NSAFD) - a not for profit organisation that provides businesses with leading workforce training and vocational study advice. The company has set up a new Food & Drink Engineering Maintenance Trailblazer apprenticeship and Justine told Agency Central that the skills shortage played a part in the formation of this. She said: "It was set up to address the skills shortage in Engineering and also to improve the quality of training delivery." This scheme will be offered to prospective apprentices later in the year. 

Apprentices breed loyalty within a workforce, as the apprentices are aware of the level of investment that is being made in them, making them less likely to seek employment elsewhere.


What are the benefits of recruiting apprentices?

On the face of it, this seems like a fairly obvious question. Why wouldn't employers want apprentices? It gives them an opportunity to train and mould employees with the type of skills that not only make them an invaluable asset to the business, but this in turn solidifies the strength of any given organisation in the long term. But the reasons are wider reaching than that, and serve to perfectly illustrate the drive that is created by National Apprenticeship Week. Agency Central spoke to a number of different companies, who provided a variety of reasons as to why apprentices are so important to their respective businesses. 

Recession / guard against an ageing workforce

The long-term impact of the 2008 recession cannot be overlooked. In our previous study about graduate job trends, a clear decline in vacancies was apparent in the aftermath of the recession. Looking further, an Office for National Statistics (ONS) document published in July 2011 laid out the devastating effects of the recession, showing that redundancy rates increased in every region of the country. In addition, workforce jobs decreased in all English regions and Wales between the second quarters of 2008 and 2010. 

Ultimately, this inability to employ new people over a long space of time led to an increase in workforce age. If this is not addressed, it can lead to serious long-term problems for an employer. It is a point raised by Silentnight - the UK's leading bed maker with 70 years of experience. Silentnight has invested in apprenticeships for more than 10 years and in the last five years, have recruited 44 apprentices onto the Silentnight Apprenticeship Scheme, with over a third having achieved graduation and now benefiting from full-time employment at the company. 

Silentnight offers apprenticeships in Manufacturing, Junior Management, Logistics and Customer Services, to name a few, and the company sees the week as a way to magnify its apprenticeship achievements. Julie Dix is the People Development & Training Co-ordinator at Silentnight. She outlined the importance of apprenticeships following the recession.

She said: "There are numerous benefits to any business in employing apprentices. Specifically for Silentnight, following the recession and a long period of no recruitment, the company ultimately had an ageing workforce. This average age has reduced from 46 to 42 in the last four years, which in a labour intensive environment, is very important."

The issue of an ageing workforce is something that NSAFD has focused on as well. The organisation uses National Apprenticeship Week to contribute to events and activities, as well as helping to achieve the key target of raising awareness of apprenticeships. 

For the NSAFD, says Justine Fosh, apprenticeships are a key 'workforce strategy' in changing the long-term make-up of employees. She said: "They (apprenticeships) are an important part of addressing a workforce strategy; companies gain in-house, long-term insurance against ageing workforces, as the apprentices are trained and developed in such a way that they are able to take over from older employees once they begin to retire, and lead the business forward."

Both employers and their apprentices have a great opportunity to step into the spotlight during National Apprenticeship Week, to help us show how an apprenticeship really can take you anywhere.

Impact of apprentices

Putting aside the way apprentices can fill skills gaps in workplaces and reduce the age of a workforce, there are clear advantages to hiring apprentices. Aside from the fact their funding is paid for, employers will generally find people whose attitude to work and thirst to learn is as high as can be. The National Apprenticeship Service outlined this in a factsheet which, through extensive research, suggests 80% of employers who hire apprentices benefit from employee retention, and 92% believe it leads to a more satisfied and content workforce.

Low turnover of apprentices is something noticed by Annamarie Petsis-Jones, who is Director of HR at Opus Energy. The company has had an apprenticeship scheme since 2012 and by using it to involve apprentices in all levels of the business, turnover has remained low and the 'top talent' remains. 

Annamarie told Agency Central: "Our apprentices are a core part of our team; they become embedded in the business at an early stage and are encouraged through team engagement and skills sharing on a wider level. This helps keep the staff turnover rate of apprentices very low, at 7-8%."

The attitude shown by apprentices has cropped up commonly as a key theme for employers, who have been impressed with those who have stepped through their doors. Aberdeen Asset Management has seen 13 apprentices 'flourish' in the last three years on its schemes, that last between 12 - 24 months. The company put on two events during Scottish Apprenticeship Week in order to encourage apprentices into the business, with aims to "develop those who can make high level contributions to the company without having attended higher education."

Apprentices at Aberdeen Asset Management have spoken in glowing terms about the programme, describing it as an "amazing way of learning," "an unbelievable opportunity," with a company that is "supportive of young people coming into the investment world." Similarly, Martin Gilbert, Chief Executive, told Agency Central that the motivation shown by apprentices has helped the programme become an "important part" of recruitment.

He said: "We've found our apprentices to be keen, motivated individuals who are committed to on-the-job training and learning. Throughout the course of their apprenticeships, we see these young people develop and flourish in the workplace. The impact that these school leavers have had on Aberdeen Asset Management is positive and has resulted in apprenticeships playing an important part of our recruitment policy."

With employee retention numbers being so high, it suggests that apprentices enjoy working for their employers and after being given such an opportunity, want to remain part of the company fabric for many more years. Justine Fosh at the NSAFD believes the commitment shown to apprentices is a crucial reason why they stay loyal. 

She said: "Apprenticeships breed loyalty within a workforce, as the apprentices are aware of the level of investment that is being made in them, making them less likely to seek employment elsewhere. Employing apprentices also shows how committed your company is to investing in its staff, making you a more attractive proposition to other potential employees and partners. And established employees who develop the apprentices learn new skills themselves, such as mentoring and teaching."

That sentiment is not lost on Silentnight. Julie Dix told Agency Central that the apprenticeship scheme at the organisation results in loyalty, and apprentices happy at their jobs are creatively bursting with ideas. She said: "The programme allows us to secure a loyal and happy workforce. Our driver is that we want good people in our business. 

"Apprentices bring fresh ideas and opinions and challenge the traditional, labour intensive norm. They also tend to be loyal and more confident, as they have learned their trade in the trade. We find them passionate about their work, both during the scheme and after in their employment."


National Apprenticeship Week, like its Scottish equivalent in the first week of March, will showcase all that is good about apprenticeships, from the point of view of an employee, employer and recruiter. The best advice is the most obvious; get involved with everything that the week has to offer. Use the toolkits and event ideas to get the most out of the week. It really could vastly improve the quality of your business or career for years to come, and be seen as a pivotal moment for everybody involved. 

By John Train

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