It comes after the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) released a report showing SMEs in England have the potential to double the number of apprentices they employ to well over two million.
The report, released last Thursday (11 August) and entitled Make or Break: Getting apprenticeship reform right for small businesses, found one in four FSB members already employ an apprentice and a further 24% would consider taking one on in the future.
This would mean the potential to deliver over a million new apprenticeships, helping to achieve the government’s target of an additional 3 million by 2020.
FSB chairman Mike Cherry described this as a “make-or-break” moment for apprenticeships and has called on the government to strike a balance between incentives and support and to make available a more generous smaller employer incentive.
SME printers are keen to take on apprentices but have voiced concerns over resources and support.
Alistair Sanderson, managing director of £760,000-turnover MTP Media, was considering taking on an apprentice until recent staff restructures turned him off the decision.
Sanderson said: “From our point of view, it does make sense to mould apprentices into how you want them. It’s not necessarily about incentives, I think small businesses just need more help in getting apprenticeships off the ground.
“If we were still doing it we would do it as a member of the BPIF, which is fine, but we have to pay to be a member. You need someone to come in and say ‘This is what you need to do, we will sit down with you for an hour and help you out’.”
The FSB’s evidence also found apprentices in 67% of SMEs gain longer-term employment with the same company.
Commercial printer Elle Media Group currently has four apprentices and has taken on many in the past; one of which has been with the company for 22 years and is now production director.
Elle managing director James Cuthbert said: “Trying to find apprentices is a real battle if I’m honest. You see the schemes promoted everywhere saying the support is there but trying to actually find decent people that want to be apprentices is the harder part."
Two out of Cuthbert’s four current apprentices came via recommendations.
“This is very much something we do off our own back,” he added.
“We are probably more the exception than the rule being an SME that continuously seeks getting apprentices into work.”
Security printer De La Rue works closely with the BPIF on its well-lauded apprenticeship programme.
De La Rue HR manager Lorraine Canavan said: “We commenced our apprenticeship scheme three years ago and at the time recruited three apprentices. The reason I was looking at getting in apprentices is that in print we have a fairly ageing workforce.
“For the first two years they moved around departments and we’ve got a couple of print sites that they’ve been spending time on.”
Two out of three of these apprentices have been nominated for PrintWeek awards and they will both be kept on at the Basingstoke, Hampshire-based firm once their apprenticeships finish.
Family-run, Sussex-based Evonprint recently expanded its apprenticeship scheme by taking on an apprentice in its digital department.
Managing director Steve Rowland said: “They are a real benefit and once I have more confidence I will take more on. There is a lot of negativity surrounding this but we need to make it sexy again and something to be proud of. You’re earning good money, doing good jobs, so we need to see some apprentices doing well for themselves and not see it as a fallback option.”
The government officially confirmed on 12 August that all companies in England with a payroll bill of over £3m per annum will be forced to pay an apprenticeship levy of 0.5% of their annual payroll. This will be offset by an annual allowance of £15,000 and come into force on 1 May 2017.
The levy will apply to those SMEs technically defined in the UK as companies with a turnover of £25m or less and staff numbers of 250 or less.
BPIF chief executive Charles Jarrold said: "The print industry has a good record of supporting apprenticeships and many current managers entered the industry via an apprenticeship.
"The industry will continue to support an employer-led training programme but has some concerns about the impact of the pace at which the government is seeking to get the reforms in place, specifically in relation to the apprenticeship levy."
The FSB also found fears over contributions to the cost of training may see a fall in businesses wanting to take on apprentices.
Challenges to taking on an apprentice, according to the research, include the perception that school leavers don’t have the necessary business skills and worries over day-to-day management.
Sanderson said: “You need somebody who’s willing to learn and have a go at stuff and ask questions and just be positive really. Also someone who’s willing to take their own time to learn.”
Recommendations from the report include calls for the government to set up a group of SMEs to critique and contribute to apprentice policy.