Apprenticeships for growth
Friday, October 30, 2020
When the management of Worcestershire-based Blue Print Direct Mail set its eyes on a new period of growth for the business, nearly six years ago, it was to form part of a bigger picture.
The plan was to attract local talent, equipping them with training and qualifications through apprenticeships, with the aim of boosting skills and employment in the local community.
Five years later, it seems the plan is paying off. The workforce has been swelled to 17, with five fully trained apprentices joining the permanent employee ranks between 2015 and 2018 and a further three new apprentices starting in the last two months.
“It’s all about growth,” explains marketing manager, Jo Widdowson, who now oversees Blue Print’s apprenticeship programmes.
“The growth of the business requires extra hands. It’s not the easy way to grow, because you could take experienced people and get them working and up to speed straight away. But we wanted to give something back to the community by training the future generation and this was a good way of doing that,” she adds.
Widdowson admits that the firm’s growth strategy could have hit the buffers this year, with the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, but through careful budgeting and cashflow management the business is firing on all cylinders again.
“We have been fortunate,” Widdowson says. “We were worried at the start of the Covid lockdown in March when we saw a downturn and had to furlough staff. But since lockdown was lifted we have been busy and things have really taken off.”
With the boost in business at its Droitwich facility and a new government incentive scheme offering payments of £2,000 per new apprentice aged between 16-24 and £1,500 for over 25s, hired between 1 August and 31 January 2021, Blue Print decided to strike while the iron was hot and breathe new life into its apprenticeship approach.
“The MD is very hands on here and likes to understand what is needed in each department, where they might become stretched or where they could do with support,” explains Widdowson.
“He wants to ensure that the people we employ are truly skilled in the right department and that is where the apprenticeships really come into their own. So if we need more capability in the print shop or the accounts division, for example, then we can set up the appropriate apprenticeship for the right person.”
In this latest round the company identified the need for additional support in the accounts, business management and production areas and so recruited accordingly.
Widdowson explains that the bulk of the apprentice recruitment work is done by the training providers, which specialise in certain courses and areas of industry. They advertise positions and carry out preliminary screening before sending shortlisted candidates on to the company for final interviews. This stage is undertaken by Blue Print managing director and driver of the company apprenticeship strategy Anthony Drew as well as the relevant department manager, says Widdowson.
“Candidates don’t generally come with a huge amount of experience, but what we are primarily looking for is enthusiasm,” she states.
As part of the process, each apprenticeship course has a series of modules and coursework requirements that vary in time and depth according to the end qualification and before a business can take on an apprentice it must ensure it has the resources and capabilities to meet those needs.
“If not, we have to address that before we can take them on and then we just follow a pattern of work with them. It’s a real combined effort with the apprentice, the line manager/mentor here and the provider to make sure they are fulfilling the course,” Widdowson explains.
She refutes claims from apprenticeship critics that such a system supports cheap labour, asserting that there is a lot of work involved and that existing staff are expected to give up their time in order to support apprentices, in the form of meetings, mentoring and day-to-day explaining and demonstrating.
“They’re not just taken on and stuck in a corner. It’s all about making sure they can do the job at the end of the day,” she emphasises.
Apprentices are closely mentored by their department managers, explains Widdowson, to ensure not only that they’re following the set criteria in order to meet the apprenticeship requirements but that equally they take the time out needed and do not take on too many additional training opportunities that may be offered by the business.
Historically, Blue Print has taken on both younger and mature apprentices and has continued this pattern with its latest cohort including 30-year-old Rosie Molnar, and Hannah Matthews and Rob Crane, who are both 20.
Molnar joined as trainee bookkeeper on 7 September and will complete a Level 3 AAT Advanced Diploma in Accounting in up to 18 months, while Hannah Matthews, who joined on 9 September will follow a Pearson Level 3 Business Administrator apprenticeship as trainee account manager over 12-15 months. The providers are Kaplan Financial and Herefordshire & Worcestershire Group Training Association respectively.
And most recently, Crane, who joined Blue Print on 19 October to undertake a BPIF Digital Printer apprenticeship, which will lead to a Level 2 Diploma in Manufacturing within two years.
All three are backed by the government apprenticeship incentive scheme. Funding means that the company pays only 5% of the course costs of each apprentice, explains Widdowson, who adds that while there is an expected minimum to pay in terms of wages, Blue Print enhances this level over the statutory minimum.
While there is no stipulation that either apprentice or employer should commit to one another at the end of the programme, Widdowson says that since the company started taking on apprentices in 2015, and prior to its latest additions, it has managed to retain five out of seven.
“Key is not to go down the road of seeing them as cheap labour or treating them as such,” she asserts. “They come here wanting to get those qualifications and the experience and you absolutely must give them everything they need in terms of time, mentoring and the tools they need to fulfil their goals.
“I think that retaining the number we have shows we have a great sense of loyalty from our apprentices,” Widdowson continues. “We are imparting all of our knowledge and fulfilling their needs. It’s paramount to us to have people with the right skills and this approach really gives everyone what they need.”
The company takes a long-term view of the training that it is offering its employees and continues to offer enhancements such as boosting apprenticeships to degree level, an opportunity recently offered to digital marketing executive Amy Guest, who joined the team as an apprentice in 2018.
“We want to keep growing and building on our offering. It’s all about identifying the areas for growth and having the right people on board that will be able to help us support that,” says Widdowson.
“Building our team through apprenticeships gives us so much more capability because where we might get enquiries that we could not have looked at previously, due to time and resources, with newly trained staff on board and in the right areas, we can do that. It creates real flexibility.”
Blue Print Direct Mail
Location Hampton Lovett Industrial Estate, Droitwich, Worcestershire
Inspection host Jo Widdowson, marketing manager
Size Turnover: £1.8M (2019); Staff: 17
Products Direct mail, door drops, digital marketing, marketing support, design, fulfilment.
Kit list A raft of Konica Minolta presses including two C1060s, two 3080s a C1100, 1052 (Mono), 2250 (Mono) and a 2060. Other kit includes an Ideal and Polar 78X guillotines, an ST45 shrinkwrap tunnel, Heidelberg and Morgana folders, two Pitney 380i inserters, two Accufast tabbers and a GPM 450 creaser
Businesses, particularly small businesses, must make sure they have the time to take on an apprenticeship. They must not consider this to be cheap labour. It’s not a quick win. They must devote time and energy to it
You have to have buy-in from your existing workforce. You will soon find out the right staff are the ones who will commit time and energy to impart their knowledge
The providers make it pretty simple for you once you’ve identified an area you want an apprentice in, but make sure you speak to potential candidates to find the right fit for your business and industry
Apprentices are an integral member of your team, so ensure you don’t treat them as anything else. There must not be a them and us environment. “We have trained staff and apprentices working side by side and no-one is treated any differently,” Widdowson says
The company is considering taking on another apprentice in the print shop in the coming months and is particularly keen to encourage more women into the printing industry, however no decision had been made at the time of writing