The month of February means different things to different people. For some its Valentine's Day, for Americans Black History Month, but for UK businesses February should mean apprenticeships.
National Apprenticeship Week runs from February 711. February is also the month in which applications for the 2011 Apprenticeship Awards are accepted. Now in its fourth year, the awards honour the best apprentices and employers in a variety of categories at an event to be held in London on June 29.
Apprenticeships are not nearly as popular as they were in years gone by. This is probably for a host of reasons, including education policy, company budget cuts and the demise of some traditional trades. But for companies especially those in the food sector they offer a customised approach to recruitment, avoid knowledge being lost through retirement and help to revitalise the workforce.
Every company, it seems, has a different approach to apprenticeships. For instance, Fosters Bakery has developed a close relationship with its local Barnsley College, with which it has developed a strategic partnership. Barnsley College has announced plans to build a bakery to better serve school leavers hoping to find employment in the many bakeries around its area, says operations director for Fosters Bakery, Michael Taylor.
To celebrate National Apprentice Week, Fosters and Barnsley College are holding a 'bakeoff', with the prize for the winner being an apprenticeship at Fosters. The college will also look at opportunities for other candidates that perform well, adds Taylor.
Cornish pasty manufacturer Ginsters, on the other hand, found it difficult in the past to get apprentices via its local colleges. Theresa Middleton, personnel manager at Ginsters, attributes this to previous education policies which encouraged people to stay on in full-time education rather than take on apprenticeships.
As a consequence, Ginsters began working with Working Link, Job Centre Plus and employability charities such as Shekinah Mission (a charity helping ex-offenders, the homeless, the socially excluded and victims of substance abuse get back to work) to source candidates. Candidates are assessed and the best are enrolled on an apprentice programme run at Ginsters' own training academy. Even unsuccessful applicants are offered skills and careers advice.
Apprenticeships can, if run well, provide clear and tangible benefits to companies that offer them. Apprentices taken on develop skills on the systems with which they work. Whether they work in production or administrative roles, apprentices are trained in such a way as to develop a familiarity with their working environment, unlike those who spend all their time at an external institute of learning or those hired from another company, says Taylor.
It has been well documented that the food industry faces the threat of an ageing workforce. The problem of long-term employees retiring and the knowledge they have gained over many years being lost with them looms large. Apprentices provide an ideal opportunity for that knowledge to be retained, says Taylor.
Taylor gives an example of a long-standing bakery engineer, who four years ago was reaching retirement. Rather than lose his expertise, Fosters brought in an apprentice who was taken under the engineer's wing. Now as the engineer approaches retirement the apprentice is ready to take over with the necessary experience to perform the job from day one. Taylor notes that, at the Apprenticeship Week bakeoff, retired bakers will be coming back to work with the apprentice applicants to produce the products that will be used to judge them.
But even for companies with younger workforces, there are still benefits to be gained from appointing apprentices. Apprentices can teach as much to people new to management roles as the manager does to the apprentice, says Middleton. For example, younger people are often more expressive than older workers, giving managers better feedback on technique, she explains.
Because Ginsters has a low turnover of staff, assessing potential apprentices also provides a good opportunity for managers to continually practise their interviewing techniques.
Ginsters has adopted a somewhat altruistic approach to its apprenticeship schemes. Due to its low staff turnover, relatively few new staff are taken on. Of the 16 people who have been through its apprenticeship scheme in the last three years, only five have gone on to hold full-time positions with the company.
However, Ginsters views its approach as a mutually beneficial service between the company and the apprentices. It helps the local community while generating good PR for the company, says Middleton. Although it requires an investment in each apprentice, the company benefits from having a ready pool of skilled new candidates from which to recruit. And the local community benefits because the number of 16- to 24-year-olds out of school, without skills or jobs is reduced, she explains.
Ginsters tries to place as many apprentices as possible with other companies through introductions during business tours of the factory or by recommendations to companies with which it has a close working relationship, Middleton adds.
In contrast, Fosters takes on apprentices to fill anticipated future openings. Because it has invested money in an apprentice it strives to do whatever it can to retain them, recouping its investment as they progress and gain experience, says Taylor.
Apprentices also benefit from getting paid as they receive training. Fosters treats its apprentices as full-time adult employees within three months of joining, says Taylor. After a probationary period, apprentices start to earn the adult minimum wage, which works out at a basic salary of about £12,000 a year, he adds. While Ginsters pays its apprentices around £100 per week, it also pays many of their other expenses and helps out in areas such as housing and transportation, explains Middleton.
Career route of choice
With apprenticeships providing benefits to both sides, it is strange that they are not proving more popular. Certainly, they should not be considered a young person's last choice of career path any more, says Taylor.
Middleton agrees and adds that many companies struggle with the question of where managers will find time to ensure good placements. "It is no use having apprentices if they learn no skills useful to the company during their time there," she says. "Instead of just having them make tea, actually getting them to do something useful takes time and thought."
But it does make sense for companies to invest time and effort in their apprenticeship schemes. Both Fosters and Ginsters have found first-rate candidates for a variety of roles in their firms and both have developed a reputation for their excellent apprenticeship programmes. It just may be that both feature strongly when the Apprenticeship Awards are presented in June.