THE BLOG
18/10/2013 11:08 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Apprenticeships Offer Big Business Opportunities to Small Businesses

Part of me doesn't want to shout about the unique business edge Apprenticeships give us, because I don't want to give away all our 'secrets' to our competitors. But the other part of me wants to encourage more businesses to tap into the potential that apprentices bring to any workforce.

Yes, I do mean, any workforce. Gone are the days when an Apprenticeship was only about working in a trade or manufacturing. While thankfully there are still lots of opportunities for apprentices in these sectors, there are tonnes of opportunities for small businesses as well as large, and those working in digital, customer and professional service sectors as well as engineering and more 'traditional' Apprenticeship routes.

I'm Managing Director for Intergage - a digital marketing company based in Dorset and Hampshire where we design and build websites, teach business people about online marketing and manage online advertising and marketing campaigns. We've been in business for over ten years now and from our team of around 30 we have six apprentices with the business.

That's one fifth of our workforce and a significant commitment to training and development - so what's in it for us?

Let me set the scene: My business partner and brother Harry is a software developer and a proper genius. He developed a software product that kick-started our company. Website Content management software that enables ordinary, non-technical humans, like me, to update, manage and market their websites. We have several hundred customers using the software, but our customers like the fact that we don't just give them software - we provide training. Our staff therefore need to have both expert technology and customer service skills.

When our Queen Bee of customer support announced she was pregnant we knew we needed to add to the team to provide cover but also to grow the team. We wanted to find and train two new team members.

My criteria for employment is to find energetic, decent, honest, caring, bright people with whom we can build a long term relationship. Talent without interpersonal skills is not an option.

Before we started employing apprentices, most staff at Intergage were graduates, but not all. I'm not one myself. Apprenticeships were a new option for us, but we understood that not all bright young people want to go to university particularly when it might cost them a lot of money.

Cat - or Catherine Gold has been with us just over 18 Months - she was our first apprentice and it was Cat that was responsible for making Apprenticeships exciting for us.

Cat wanted to work in customer service and found herself struggling through catering college and work at Waitrose. Cat discovered the Apprenticeship possibility when helping her boyfriend find an opening in Engineering. In doing the online research she was pleasantly surprised to find that Apprenticeships were also available in business administration and customer service. She could see that she would be both continuing her education, applying it to a real world job and gain qualifications while she got paid.

Cat secured an interview with Intergage and impressed from the first moment. She quickly settled into her role in the team. Although still learning she was soon able to be productive for the company as well as demonstrating to her assessors that her day to day work was directly relevant to the qualifications she was striving for.

Within a few weeks, Cat had learned a new software product we were offering, and she was pushing to be the customer-lead for this. I was gob smacked. She'd only been with us for weeks and here she was stepping up, taking responsibility and not even waiting to be asked. She'd seen an opportunity and she would make it hers.

She did it brilliantly. Cat is a now a full-time employee. She's happy and still growing and learning, studying for her next NVQ level 3 and has taken on supervisory duties - when our next customer service apprentice, Mali, followed on six months later. Cat is planning to follow the management route until she achieves her goal of becoming Account Director. She's a Cat with a plan and we got the cream.

But Cat is just the start of the story.

Our team members are always recruitment targets. One such raid tempted away one of our three superb software developers at a time when we wanted to invest in and grow the team. We decided we needed to invest for the long term in a team of 4 additional young people to help us achieve this. For a company of our size this represents a significant investment. Following the success of Cat and Mali in customer service, we wondered, would Apprenticeships work for something technical like software development?

Well, my brother Harry, is a software developer and not one for gut reactions so he sat down with a spread sheet and evaluated the options in as scientific manner as he could. The alternatives we considered included:

1) Outsourcing overseas

2) Recruiting somebody else's experienced staff

3) Graduate recruitment

His spread sheets are works of art and this one was no exception. He established a criteria for evaluating each option.

He calculated and scored, Up-front costs, costs over three years, time to reach productivity, likely quality of the output, management time and likely loyalty factors.

He weighted each of these factors to indicate their importance to us; weighting up-front costs the least important and likely quality of output once trained alongside AND likely loyalty as the most important factors.

To my surprise, his spreadsheet calculated that Apprenticeships would be the best 3 year investment we could make.

The issue now was could we find the raw talent?

We interviewed and tested and we quickly found that we could. These guys had all the intellect, personal attributes and potential we were looking for and a great attitude. We found they all viewed this as a long term thing, a mountain they were committed to climbing in order to be a software developer, get into the online software business and to work for Intergage.

What's more, while tech savvy, they were blank pieces of paper - we could train them our way from the ground up - a major investment but one that stacked up - validated by both by gut feel and Harry's mathematical formulas.

Ten months ago we started to induct these new apprentices. There was a positive impact immediately. Things were getting done, Harry was free to get important stuff done and the guys seem to love taking on new challenges that save our senior guys time, while they learn the art of creating clever code.

We've got four great new team members and a couple of absolute stars - some of the best talent we've ever seen - and we are pinching ourselves right now.

These guys are already writing code, i.e. being productive for the business - one of them after just two months - not the 12 we had envisaged - this gives us a very bright future and an even greater confidence in the Apprenticeship system.

According to research by O2 the UK will need other three-quarters of a million digitally skilled workers by 2017 to support economic recovery and growth. I hope our experiences illustrate that Apprenticeships are not just for traditional engineering trades and large corporates but also apply to digital industries and small businesses - an important message in helping the UK recover, compete and grow in the future.

As a small business there is good support from National Apprenticeship Service to help you establish Apprenticeships within your business call them on 08000 150 600 to get a local advisor to help and check out their employers page online.