You might think apprenticeships are only for big businesses, but we're here to let you know they can work just as well – for both employers and employees – in a small or medium enterprise.

From a business perspective, there are plenty of benefits: first up, apprenticeships give you the opportunity to develop employees from the ground up, moulding them to your business and ways of working from day one. Secondly, investing in young talent builds loyalty, which leads to improved retention – saving you money on rehiring and retraining later on. Not to mention you’ll be reaching untapped talent your competitors might have overlooked, which gives you a competitive edge.

For young people – and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – small and medium businesses have plenty to offer. Depending on their personality, many may prefer to start their career in a smaller organisation – entering the world of work can be an intimidating prospect, so a more intimate environment could be more appealing. Plus, growing companies can often offer more role flexibility and opportunities for growth, both of which are high in school leavers' priorities.

So, if you’re an SME thinking about apprenticeships, how can you get them right first time?

1. Map the role to a qualification standard

An apprenticeship has two elements: the job itself, which you create and manage, and the qualification from an accredited body that the apprentice works towards alongside it. Both parts are equally as important for your apprentice's development and success (and yours).

If you're offering an apprenticeship for the first time, its important to start by mapping out the role – not the other way around. Think about what your business needs and what you can offer a young person starting work. Consider the responsibilities you'd like them to take, where they'll fit into your team and how you see them developing over time.

Top tip: Apprentice roles should be suitable for someone with no work experience at all, but make them too basic and they become meaningless. Try to balance entry-level requirements with plenty of development opportunities.

Once you have a clear idea of the role, you can map it to an apprenticeship qualification that supports it. There are hundreds to choose from – ranging from the generalist to the niche and technical – so having a detailed role specification will help you narrow down the options. The more complementary your role and the qualification, the more rounded the overall apprenticeship will be – making for better engagement and retention.

2. Take your time choosing a training provider

Once you've chosen the apprenticeship qualification you want to offer, you need to decide on a provider. Think of them as your ally throughout the apprenticeship: their role is crucial in the success of the scheme. First off, you need to find an accredited provider that specialises in your chosen qualification. To narrow it down further, you can start to compare performance metrics and Ofsted scores.

Don’t feel you have to go with the first option you come across. Ask providers how they operate, how they deliver training, and how they support you as well as the apprentice. Choosing a training provider is a big decision – you need to be confident they’ll contribute to the development of both your apprentice and your business.

3. Make sure managers engage with the apprenticeship qualification

Done right, apprenticeship qualifications are invaluable in supporting an apprentice's role in your business, but this requires an joined-up approach.

Too often we see apprentices start out excited and engaged, only to begin resenting their qualification because it feels like a time-hungry side-project that isn't relevant to the job they're doing for you.

To get the most value for both an apprentice and your business, it’s crucial to engage with the qualification syllabus. Understanding the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to gain the qualification will help to shape the development plan for your apprentice, helping them grow in both confidence and ability. For example: if they need to show evidence of their customer service skills, have you considered how you’ll give your apprentice direct engagement with your customers – and a timeline for doing this?

Top tip: If you see the qualification as essential then your apprentice will too. Ask about it, join meetings with the training provider and engage with the process, to reinforce to your apprentice how important it is.

4. Prepare your team to make apprentices feel welcome

Today's school-leavers may have had limited opportunity for work experience, so what might be obvious to other new recruits – even those at graduate level – could be completely new to them. For some apprentices, being in an office environment could be a totally alien (and alienating) experience. To help make their transition from education to employment as smooth as possible, take a grassroots approach to apprentices' induction and training. If you assume they know absolutely nothing about work life, you'll be better prepared to help them settle in happily and successfully.

Make sure you have structures in place to support apprentices – both in terms of tracking their professional development, and from a pastoral perspective. Schedule regular check-ins with their manager and wider team, so they get used to engaging in these new contexts and have regular opportunities to absorb insight and ask advice. Increase transparency and manage expectations by setting clear goals you can measure progress against, working together with your apprentice to identify strengths and areas for development along the way.

Top tip: Try meeting with your apprentice to evaluate a specific piece of work and asking them to label it 'red', 'amber' or 'green' in terms of how confident they feel about it. This is a simple way to bring strengths and areas for development into focus, making it easier to tailor a development plan that helps them move forward.

From a pastoral perspective, assign a 'buddy' – perhaps someone on their level from a different team – who can show them the ropes (like how to use the coffee machine, and which Slack channel to use for what), as well as being a friendly face around the office. By engaging your current employees with your apprenticeship programme you'll not only make life easier for your new apprentices, you'll also get your team onboard with the initiative. 

5. Put an onboarding plan in place

We've talked before about how important it is to nail your onboarding process – did you know people who have a negative onboarding experience are twice as likely to seek a different opportunity? For small and medium enterprises, it’s especially crucial that the time and budget invested in finding new hires pays off.

So, start as you mean to go on. At Visionpath, we develop your ‘20:20 Plan’ covering 20 days pre-join and 20 days post-join, giving you a clear vision for how your apprentice is going to be integrated into your team. Your onboarding plan should be a recorded document that’s made available to everyone involved – from HR, to hiring managers, to the apprentice themselves.

Top tip: The beauty of hiring apprentices is that you'll probably have a longer pre-start period than you would with any other recruit. So, how will you use that time wisely? Be careful not to overload students at key times (take a look at our handy hiring cycle post for the inside track on when that is), but don't be afraid to keep in touch before they actually join you.

There's a lot to think about when it comes to hiring apprentices, but the payoff is worth it. At Visionpath we offer end-to-end solutions, or consulting on specific parts of the process – from making recommendations for a fitting apprenticeship qualification, to helping you choose a training provider, to training your team for the arrival of a new apprentice and even putting together an onboarding plan.

So, if you're an SME thinking of embarking on apprenticeships for the first time, why not get in touch?

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