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How to create a pro-apprenticeship company culture

Jake Tween

When looking at business efficiencies and addressing critical skills gaps, the significance of company culture is often overlooked. But when it comes to realising the potential of new apprenticeship standards, culture is critical. Contributor Jake Tween is Head of Apprenticeships – ILM.

Apprenticeships will only be in a position to achieve core business goals if people across the whole of an organisation recognise their value. If employers manage to successfully implement apprenticeships – at all levels, across a range of teams, and amongst both new and existing staff – then employees will start to see how on-the-job training can be of huge benefit. This will go a long way to creating a wider company culture of learning.

The apprenticeship levy has given employers a good reason to consider apprenticeships. It provides a useful source of funds from which employers can draw, allowing them to plug vital skills gaps across their business and build a more skilled and qualified workforce.  A year on from the introduction of the levy, employers are starting to realise that apprenticeships can be used to upskill staff of any seniority or experience level and in every department. But concerns about the implementation of the apprenticeship levy, access to funding, and confusion about its application mean it hasn’t taken off in the way it should have.

Yet there is also a cultural barrier holding organisations back from taking advantage of the opportunities brought about by the new standards. Just 37 percent of UK businesses told us that they are very confident about their long term supply of leadership and management talent. What’s worrying is that 58 percent felt middle and senior managers would be unwilling to be viewed as an apprentice; 53 percent said this was because of the reputation and image of apprenticeships, while 41 percent said the implication they needed additional help and support was the major issue. And yet with just 37 percent of UK businesses ‘very confident’ about their supply of leadership and management talent, this is clearly an area organisations need to focus on addressing.

A major concern for UK businesses is that deeply ingrained associations with trade, low wages and a feeling that they stall progression, mean that apprenticeships are being disregarded by those aspiring to progress. HR professionals are key to shifting these outdated perceptions and creating a culture that encourages their business to embrace apprenticeships as a quality training opportunity that is seen as a route to a productive and fulfilling career. There are a number of steps HR professionals can take to accelerate the pace at which this culture takes off.

Provide clear information
Sit down with staff and talk through what is actually involved in an apprenticeship standard – this really helps to get staff buy in. Once individuals – whether that’s the learner, training decision-makers, or finance directors – have looked at the content and had the chance to understand the depth of the curriculum along with the knowledge and skills acquired within it, they invariably overcome any preconceptions and prejudices.

Focus on return on investment
Apprentices who are able to mix with people from other businesses and industries invariably return to work reinvigorated, and with fresh ideas and perspectives. Many employers report a swift and often significant return on investment in terms of improvements made to products and processes on the back of this off-the-job learning. This is of huge benefit to the apprentice, their immediate colleagues and their employer as a whole.

Make it central to a talent development strategy
Employers should find a training provider partner who is able and willing to work with them to map out their short, medium and long term workforce development strategies. Do not only think of individual apprenticeship standards to fill immediate, obvious holes in your business. Think about how apprenticeships can form a wider talent management strategy in conjunction with other forms of training and recruitment, in order to meet the current and future needs of your business.

It’s important to be creative about how you can use your levy to grow and develop your business and your workforce. Apprenticeships provide a huge opportunity for businesses to respond to domestic and global challenges as they encourage investment in the business’ greatest asset: its people.

Be clear about the benefits and dispel misconceptions
Apprenticeships hold huge potential for businesses but it’s also crucial that HR professionals explain the benefits for the personal development of employees. For most UK workers, an apprenticeship is not the end of the road it’s a route into a career of lifelong learning, development and wage growth. It is a way to demonstrate a commitment to learning, through a fully-funded programme by which an industry-recognised standard can be achieved during their paid working hours.

And employers should not be put off by the 20 percent off-the-job training requirement. This does not mean a day a week out of the business. Work with your training provider and each individual apprentice to identify ways of recording naturally-occurring evidence that will count towards the 20 percent.

Where suitable, enrol senior staff on apprenticeships
Enrolling senior staff (Directors or even C-Suite) is a good way of gaining buy-in across an organisation. Many middle to senior managers are worried about how they will be perceived by others within their organisation if they are studying an apprenticeship. If the people at the very top are leading by example, then others will follow. Getting to a place where leaders at all levels of seniority understand the investment opportunity an apprenticeship represents for their career is a key route to developing a healthy pipeline of talent, and a sustainable future for the business.

The apprenticeship levy has been introduced with the aim of reducing the UK’s skills deficit by upskilling the workforce. Whilst it’s true that the levy has got off to a slow start, it has the potential to significantly improve the prospect of UK businesses. What’s key is that businesses, providers and the Government work together to implement it well.

HR professionals have a crucial role to play in this – they are the front line and main conduit between the training world and the business world. The reforms represent the biggest sea-change in a long time, and place employers firmly in the driving seat. There is plenty of support out there from providers and awarding organisations to help HR teams make the most of what is, at its heart, the opportunity to instil a culture of continual learning across their organisation once and for all.

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