Old-school schemes find favour with a new generation

Rob Gray
Monday, March 23, 2015

Ink-stained apprentices were a feature of the printing trade for centuries. At least three US presidents – Thomas Jefferson, Warren Harding and Lyndon Johnson – worked as so-called ‘printer’s devils’ in their younger years. Other famous one-time devils include Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain.

But times move on, technology advances and attitudes to learning and professional development evolve. For a number of years, apprenticeships were viewed as old-fashioned, unable to efficiently deliver what was desired either by employers or ambitious young people at the outset of their careers; so they fell from favour. 

Now the pendulum has swung back. And how! 

The prospect of being saddled with massive student debt is encouraging many highly able teenagers to consider alternatives to going to university. As a result, apprenticeships have become a far more attractive proposition for young talent embarking on a career.

“We are in a situation now where we have a lot of young people who don’t want to go to university,” says BPIF training and development director Kay Smith. “They are deterred by the costs associated with it. The apprenticeship route is a perfect choice around that. It’s a route to securing knowledge that has the benefits of being both in education and in employment. You’ve got high-quality people coming out of education now who are looking to be engaged and we need to make sure we are at the forefront of that by offering them quality programmes. And that is what we are doing.” 

According to a Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) study, apprenticeships contributed £34bn to the UK economy in 2014. The research also shows that the number of people starting an apprenticeship each year has grown from around 100,000 in 1950, to more than 440,000 people in 2013/14. If this upward trend in recruitment continues, the national economy stands to gain £50bn by 2025. CEBR figures also point to an apprenticeship typically raising an employee’s productivity by £214 per week.

There’s plenty of evidence that apprenticeships provide an excellent, highly flexible way for businesses to increase their staff. By taking on an apprentice you can train a young person with the skills that your business needs and use those skills in the way that you want. Additionally, given the right supportive environment, an apprentice very quickly begins to contribute and add value to a business. By giving a young person a start in life it adds credibility to a business within the context of corporate social responsibility activity. 

Unfounded fears

Nevertheless, some employers remain wary of taking on apprentices, fearing they might end up investing time and money in developing people only for them to drop out. Yet although high drop-out rates were indeed a serious concern a decade ago, improvements in delivery mean young people are much more appreciative of their worth and the opportunities they bring.

“Apprenticeship achievement rates across all industries are generally above 85%, which is fantastic and not what I would consider a high drop-out rate,” says Jonathan Ledger, managing director of Proskills, which promotes and provides training in the material, production and supply industries. “In fact, training providers and colleges delivering apprenticeships are contracted by government to achieve over this threshold. 

“In 2002 the national print industry achievement rates were around just 30% and now they are over 90%. The number of print-specific apprentices has risen in the last year by 25% and this in part due to the government push to encourage more employers to take apprentices and also to the focus on the quality of training provision and support that apprentices receive.” 

Ledger adds that it might also be surprising to know that there is almost no difference in the achievement rate of those under 25 years old as compared to those over 25 years old. This undermines the assumption that mature learners achieve more. 

Hobbs the Printers managing director David Hobbs believes one of the reasons his company has a very low drop-out rate is that it employs newcomers full-time in the business for up to a year before enrolling them into a formal apprenticeship. This ensures that they are working in a business and industry that they are engaged with before they undertake their studies. He adds that Hobbs has had a ‘zero’ drop-out rate since adopting this policy. 

“To minimise the chances of someone dropping out, we believe it is important to obtain a sincere commitment from the individual to complete the course,” says Hobbs. “After beginning their apprenticeship, if the person appears to be failing to complete their assignments on time or to the quality required, it is important they are seen by their manager as soon as possible to ascertain the reason for this problem, give support if appropriate and agree an action plan to get the individual back on course.”

Naturally, apprentices must be self-motivated and prepared to work hard. But there is also a responsibility on employers to keep them engaged, encourage their development and underline the long-term commitment and opportunities that are part and parcel of modern apprenticeships. Taking a short-term attitude, using an apprentice purely to fill a capacity gap or not offering opportunities to learn and grow are all at odds with what apprenticeships should be about.

Some employers are reluctant to take on apprentices for fear it will tie up valuable time for line managers. Yet the counter-argument to this is surely that all staff – not just apprentices – need mentoring and supporting to build skills. Businesses that do not invest in developing their people will surely be left floundering in the wake of more progressive competitors. 

Moreover, apprenticeships do not generate a hellish mountain of admin. David Richards, technical & commercial manager at Amberley Labels, has been involved in managing five apprenticeships and has found dealing with the training providers to be straightforward and undemanding. “The process itself is so well managed by colleges that everything from the ‘pre-interview’ interviews and all relevant government paperwork, is completed and processed with the support of a contracts manager and then an apprentice support team member, who visits every month for regular reviews. This ensures the modules the apprentices are set are completed without the need for a line manager to take so much time out of their working day. I would suggest it takes no more from our management time than it would when employing a trainee or new starter.” 

Nurturing workforces

Certainly many employers in the sector have success stories to share. KCS Print managing director Terrye Teverson says apprenticeships are a great way of developing a workforce for the future. Her company is currently training two apprentices in the pressroom and in finishing. This is going so well that the plan is to take on three more – in machine finishing, warehousing and office administration. More broadly, Teverson says the aim is to nurture a group of people who will grow within the culture of the organisation. 

“We also have a long-term member of staff undertaking an NVQ Level 5 Diploma in management,” adds Teverson. “This course has certainly stretched his thinking, and mine! The course covers everything from data collection to informed decisions, critical thinking, understanding the economics of the workplace and leading innovation and change. It is varied and thought-provoking and encourages understanding of how decisions are made. 

“I feel that this has had a benefit to his attitude and understanding of the workplace. He has stepped up a level by doing this course and with days out of the office has met other people involved in the print industry. It also means that in the future he has an additional qualification on his CV so adds value to himself. I think he feels that we have invested in him and that he was worth the additional help in training.”

There’s a compelling argument that apprenticeships will be an important seedbed for the future stars of the industry. AJS Labels managing director Andrew Scrimgeour has high hopes for Jordan Dudas, PrintWeek Trainee of the Year 2014, who is enrolled on a BPIF print administration NVQ Level 3 and is earning huge respect in the business for his work for a demanding blue-chip client. 

“Throughout my career I have always picked out stars for the future and backed them and some of my right-hand men now started in the factory doing the most junior tasks,” says Scrimgeour. “I am passionate about apprentices and training and while I know some people say training and education are expensive, as someone once said: ‘if you think training is expensive, try ignorance’.”

According to research by think tank Demos, England has 11 apprentices for every 1,000 employees. That might sound a reasonable amount but it is not a patch on some other leading western economies. There are 39 per thousand in Australia, 40 per thousand in Germany and 43 per thousand in Switzerland.

Clearly, in the UK and in the print sector specifically we are moving in the right direction, but there is still a way to go. 


Apprenticeships: getting the basics right

Apprentices must work with experienced staff, learn job-specific skills and study for a work-based qualification during their working week, for example at a college or training organisation.

An apprentice will normally work a minimum of 30 hours per week and should receive a minimum wage that is determined by their age and programme. 

As with other employees, apprentices must receive a minimum 20 days’ holiday per year, not including bank holidays. 

The National Minimum Wage for apprentices aged 16-18 is £2.73 an hour. This also applies to apprentices aged 19 and over who are in their first year. However, best practice is to pay above £2.73 if possible. From October the minimum for apprentices will rise to £3.30 per hour.

As an employer you must ensure you have an apprenticeship contract drawn up and signed by both parties. Otherwise you will be legally obliged to pay the standard National Minimum Wage rate for their age, which will be higher than the apprenticeship rate. As would be the case in relation to other members of staff, failure to pay the correct minimum wage could result in a fine of £20,000 and being publicly named and shamed. Details of current wage rates can be found at www. gov.uk/national-minimum-wage-rates.

You may be entitled to an apprenticeship grant of £1,500 if you have fewer than 50 employees and your apprentice is aged 16-24. Support can be claimed for a maximum of 10 apprentices.

Be clear on your obligations 

It is important to realise that once you choose to take on an apprentice you are committed to providing them with employment for as long as it takes to complete their programme or a minimum of 12 months, whichever is greater, subject to satisfactory performance.

You can only terminate an apprenticeship early in rare cases and not simply because you are unhappy with their performance. 

You cannot make an apprentice redundant unless the workplace is closing. If an apprentice has their contract terminated unfairly, they can receive significantly higher than normal damages for wrongful dismissal to compensate them for loss of wages, loss of training and loss of status. If they have the required qualifying service, they can also claim compensation for unfair dismissal. 

Support, health & wellbeing

Sometimes young people need a helping hand to make that transition from the comfort of the school environment to the demanding world of work – and that’s where coaching and mentoring come in to play. 

Employers need to maximise the support and help offered by their college or training provider. Many training providers and colleges have ‘welfare support’ designed to help employers manage apprentices throughout the duration of their programme.

Because a young person specifically under the age of 18 will be less familiar with heavy or potentially dangerous equipment, they must be supervised and protected from risk as much as possible (visit www.hse.gov.uk/youngpeople/law for more information) in order to mitigate and where possible remove any risk. 

Apprentices over the age of 18 are subject to standard but no less good practice HSE laws. An apprentice will not have the life experience of an older worker and so may not fully understand any potential risks and may lack maturity. The simplest way is for the business to conduct a thorough risk assessment of all those areas that an apprentice would have access to and to put in place any measures which are necessary to protect them – as you would with other employees. 

Usually the college and training provider will conduct their own risk assessment before starting the apprentice and will advise on any areas needing attention or improvement by the employer – so even this process could add value to the business. At the end of the day the risk assessment is pain free and does not take very long at all, but the impact on employee and apprentice lives could be significant.

The Working Time (Amendment) Regulations 2002 (www. legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2002/ 3128/made) which essentially sets out regulations relating specifically to young workers (i.e. those under 18 years old). Apprentices are not permitted to work more than eight hours per day; must be given two days off per week and those days must be consecutive. 

There are restrictions relating to shift work and specifically night working; depending on the industry these can vary – but for print and paper industries, generally an apprentice should not work between 10pm and 6am. The TUC has a useful guide relating to apprenticeship working (www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/youngpeople.pdf). 

Apprenticeship training agencies 

You can use an apprenticeship training agency to find an apprentice to work for you. If you take this route you are not the apprentice’s employer and therefore can stop employing the apprentice more easily if need be

You will pay a fee to the agency for the apprentice to work for you. Apprenticeship training agency fees are usually the minimum wage for the apprentice plus a management fee

The agency supervises the apprentice’s learning, including their training and assessment. If you end the apprenticeship early (for example because you can’t afford to carry on employing the apprentice) the agency will find them another work placement.

For more information on using an apprentice training agency, contact the National Apprenticeship Service: www.apprenticeships.gov.uk/.

Getting the most out of your apprentices 

A lot of your apprentices have great skills in technology and social media. Don’t be afraid to utilise these in ways that are advantageous to your business.

Use successful apprentices as mentors.

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