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Research identifies reasons behind lack of apprentices

92% of sole traders have never employed an apprentice

  • 47% of respondents working in the building services engineering sector had experience of hiring an apprentice
  • Of those, only 23% currently employ an apprentice
  • A third showed concern around the time commitment involved and needed a clearer understanding of how much time is spent in training ‘off the job’
  • Those that already had an apprentice said they were far more likely to hire again next year

A lack of clarity on the benefits and an over-complicated application process have been identified as the key barriers to increasing the number of apprentices taken on by small firms operating in the building and trades industry, new research has revealed.

The survey, commissioned by training specialist JTL, the largest provider of apprenticeships in the building services engineering sector, in partnership with The Enterprise Trust, a charitable campaign focused on delivering 25,000 new skills-based apprenticeships over three  years, found 92% of sole traders have never employed an apprentice. Of those, 47% of respondents working in the building services engineering sector had experience of hiring an apprentice, but only 23% currently employ an apprentice.

Respondents appeared to take on an apprentice for a mixture of business reasons and to encourage more of them to develop skills for life. For those who had employed an apprentice, 36% experienced satisfaction from giving a young person a career opportunity, although this was somewhat lower than the 51% who had expected this to be a benefit.

Interestingly, when asked if they were likely to employ another apprentice, those that already had an apprentice said they were far more likely to hire again next year.

With falling apprenticeship numbers over the past year, the research partnership aimed to investigate the main barriers to take up. In particular, it was seeking evidence to help them produce new advice, information and guidance for small and medium sized employers to encourage them to employ apprentices.

More than 95% of the people questioned in the eSurvey, which was conducted with both JTL and Checkatrade members, worked in sole trader or small companies employing ten or less employees, an area of particular strength for JTL which has more than 7,000 apprentices currently on its books across England and Wales. Of those surveyed, 92% of sole traders have never employed an apprentice. Of those responding, 47% of respondents working in the building services engineering sector had experience of hiring an apprentice but only 23% currently employ an apprentice.

Respondents appeared to take on an apprentice for a mixture of business reasons and to encourage more of them to develop skills for life. For those who had employed an apprentice, 36% experienced satisfaction from giving a young person a career opportunity, although this was somewhat lower than the 51% who had expected this to be a benefit.

Interestingly, when asked if they were likely to employ another apprentice, those that already had an apprentice said they were far more likely to hire again next year.

The main objective of the research was to identify the key barriers to employing apprentices. Despite the efforts of organisations like JTL, The Enterprise Trust and those of Government, a lack of clarity around what is involved in employing an apprentice seemed to be the key barrier. There was considerable concern about the complexity of funding with 15% of respondents citing this as an issue along with concerns about the amount of paperwork involved.

The additional information required by small businesses, before they were willing to consider recruiting an apprentice next year, was well defined. 61% wanted the costs and funding clearly explained. 52% wanted to know what support is available to them if they decided to recruit. 33% showed concern around the time commitment involved and needed a clearer understanding of how much time is spent in training ‘off the job’ – in college or a training centre. 28% of small employers needed to know how long an apprenticeship takes, to help decide if they could commit to the necessary period of time involved in training an apprentice.

Only 21% of employers working in JTL’s sectors indicated that they would not need any additional support if they were going to recruit a new apprentice. 33% of respondents suggested that face to face meetings with a dedicated assessor would be helpful whilst 32% thought a support line offering help with apprenticeship related queries would make sense. 31% wanted an online platform to help monitor their apprentices progress and 27% wanted help with apprentice selection. 16% said they would value help with interviewing apprenticeship candidates.

Employers working in JTL’s key areas of interest (building services engineering sector) appeared to utilise apprentices within their workforce more than other companies that took part in the research. They appear to experience many positive business benefits as a result, and the altruistic benefits of developing a young person’s career should also not be under estimated.

There are substantial information barriers to hiring more apprentices. The process is not well understood and is borne out by the fact that it is much more likely that a small company that already has an apprentice will recruit additional apprentices. It seems that once you have been through the process and recognised the benefits and challenges of employing a young person in your business, the fear factor is overcome and the desire to repeat the experience is stronger.

Jon Graham is JTL’s Chief Executive: “This has been a really useful exercise for our organisations. Much of the evidence we have received confirms what we already knew, with particular issues for companies employing ten or less employees.  The majority of our employers fit this profile, although we do work with organisations of all sizes including some of the very largest contractors in England and Wales.

“The recent changes to funding for apprenticeships has inevitably had more effect on smaller companies where the resources for understanding the changes and administration are less than for a major business with dedicated departments to look after these matters. We were convinced – and are even more so now – that small companies will resist the opportunity to employ apprentices if it is perceived as just another costly issue to worry about.

“As a result of this research, we have a much clearer view of the information we need to prepare and share with potential employers and the way in which we need to communicate with them. There are a number of perceptions out there that are simply wrong or based on a lack of understanding of important facts in relation to recruiting apprentices and the apprenticeship scheme as a whole. We have to address these – in particular with regard to the funding issues. It’s interesting that those who are already employing apprentices are more likely to recruit again. We have to consider finding a better way to support existing employers who recognise the benefits and clearly value apprenticeships to communicate those positives to fellow employers who are falling prey to the perceptions that so many have indicated to us through this research.

“We know the future is bright here at JTL as we continue to grow and recruit more apprentices. Those of us working in the training sector need to do better in communicating the value of apprenticeships and the vital role they have to play, particularly at this uncertain time.  They provide high quality, motivated young people into the sector to take the place of those leaving the workplace, especially those we have previously relied upon from Europe, who are currently leaving us with sizeable skills gaps to fill.”

Helen Booth, Chief Executive Officer at The Enterprise Trust, said: “It’s clear, demystifying the application process for those thinking about taking on apprentices is a vital step to increase the take-up.  Those working in the trades sector are busy people and anything that increases workload with no perception of the benefits, is just not going to happen. The fact that those that have had experienced taking on apprentices are more likely to do it again, confirms that it is the perception of complexity that is holding people back.

“We are making it our mission to change this to realise our long-term aim of dramatically increasing the number of apprentices working in these important sectors.”

About Elizabeth Jordan

Elizabeth Jordan
I'm the Assistant Editor on BMJ. If you have any product or people information, or some news you'd like to share, please feel free to email me.

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