Every month we sit down with an expert to talk about issues businesses are facing and the possible solutions that can help to alleviate these issues. We know the skills gap and finding the right people to recruit is a worry to many businesses. Even when you find the right person on paper, how can you be sure they will be the right fit for your culture, or that you can even afford to add them to your payroll? This month we were delighted to speak to George Ritchie MBE about how hiring an apprentice could be the answer to staffing issues and the value that they can bring to businesses.
Profile: George Ritchie MBE is Associate Director and Consultant at PX Limited and Chair of North East Apprenticeship Ambassador Network and National Apprenticeship Ambassador Network. Recognised for his knowledge and experience as coach and mentor, his specialities include human resources and people development, with leadership, management, training and education skills.
George, you obviously believe in the power of apprenticeships. What has made you so passionate about them?
The power of apprenticeships is the incredible and life-changing opportunities they offer. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from: you can be an apprentice. From school leavers to those wanting to retrain or re-enter the workforce and those looking to progress right to the top of their profession – apprenticeships work for everyone. And once you take the first step, apprenticeships offer a unique and invaluable combination of industry experience, qualifications and workplace skills. They open the door to a successful career.
I started out as an apprentice and it led to a great career, so I want to give something back. I’ve been involved with apprenticeships throughout my working life, from the recruitment process through training to providing support and professional mentoring, up to degree level.
I passionately believe apprenticeships have made a difference to the individuals I’ve worked with and I’ve witnessed how apprenticeships have improved performance at the companies I’ve worked for. As a result, I’ve been at the heart of promoting apprentices as a key driver for ensuring companies achieve their business goals and targets around people development.
How many apprentices have you taken on during your career?
I must have supported over 1,000 apprentices, either directly or indirectly through apprenticeship programmes I’ve designed and led during the course of my 53 year-long career. I’ve put a great deal of my personal time into this work and am proud to say there are many people working in the various industry sectors who will have future careers because of my continued passion and drive to help young people thrive.
Can you tell us about a time when having an apprentice led to a positive result for a business?
I could tell you about many times!
One is my own experience of being an apprentice. It was during my apprenticeship that I developed my passion for learning and with support from my company I was able to move into higher education and gain a degree. My degree allowed me to develop and design some new hardware, which the company used to improve product quality while reducing costs. This simultaneously enabled a higher profit and provided customers with a better product.
Equally, I know of an apprentice who worked for a major employer in the North East. Thanks to what they learnt during the apprenticeship, they were able to spot an opportunity to change and streamline the company’s accounting processes - and saved that company £500K.
More generally, apprenticeships are playing a crucial role in tackling significant skills shortages that sectors like manufacturing and construction are facing. For example, the British manufacturing sector says businesses have seen a 16% rise in EU workers leaving employment following Brexit. This is on top of existing skills shortages that have seen a third of employers recruit from overseas to fill the gaps.
The construction industry too projects an extra 35,740 people will be needed in the sector by 2021. Apprenticeships can help these business challenges by developing the specific skills in areas that employers need right now, and also for the future.
Through your work with the Apprenticeship Ambassador networks, you clearly champion the opportunities that apprenticeships offer young people. What do you think are the benefits to businesses that apprenticeships can bring employers?
There are many business benefits to apprenticeships. Improving social mobility and staff retention, attracting smart recruits, and injecting organisations with energy and enthusiasm are just a few. And of course all of these mean that a business or organisation is more productive and is running more smoothly.
Most enlightened employers realise that their people are their greatest asset and so investing in apprenticeships is a long-term commitment and a smart move in ensuring they have the current and future talent that will drive the company forward. It’s basically future-proofing your organisation.
The apprenticeship ambassador networks, especially the Young Apprenticeship Ambassador Network in the North East, are so very important for attracting young people to apprenticeships because seeing how successful your peers have been as apprentices is a powerful message.
There is also lots of brilliant activity promoting apprenticeships in schools and to teachers and parents. We are challenging any misconceptions about apprenticeships and showing they are as valuable as an academic/university education.
What do you feel has been the biggest benefit of employing apprentices?
Apprentices are some of the most talented, passionate, committed, brilliant people I have employed, or recruited onto regional apprenticeship programmes. I have seen the majority of them blossom and grow into many business roles delivering value for them. Quite a number of them achieved management and senior management roles. An example of this was a young talented person who became one of youngest power station shift managers at 28 years of age after completing an apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships offer employers the chance to recruit from a wider pool of people and find fantastic individuals that together make the team stronger. Employing apprentices also means you have a long-term plan and the security of developing the exact skills your business will need for tomorrow and the future. So you can be more confident about the direction you are heading and that you have the right team to deliver the results you want.
And what have been the pitfalls? What should business leaders watch out for?
There’s sometimes a misconception that employing apprentices is long-winded and bureaucratic. Yes there is a process to go through but actually there is lots of support and advice. The point is that the investment – in terms of your time, money, strategy – is well worth it. One thing that business leaders do need to watch out for is that sometimes young people don’t know the rules of work or the workplace, including adhering to health and safety so they need to ensure that they have an effective mentor and coach to guide them.
If you were to give one piece of advice to business owners who are maybe unsure whether to take on an apprentice or not, what would you say?
Go for it! An apprentice will definitely make a positive impact on your business.
First of all, pay them a decent wage if you want someone good and offer them progression if they succeed. You and your company will be repaid by loyalty, commitment, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn plus delivery for your business.
2018 is a great year to become part of the apprenticeship movement. There has been many changes to help make apprenticeships work for business and be more ‘employer-led’. For example, groups of Trailblazer employers have designed the apprenticeship standards - written by employers, for employers. By taking on an apprentice, you’ll join the network of employers who want to make their business as good as it can possibly be.
And finally, what support and resources are out there for business owners who want to set up apprenticeships?
The GOV.UK website offers a wealth of information and advice, and employers can find an apprenticeship standard, post vacancies and learn about the apprenticeship levy. The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and a business support team give free, impartial advice to employers, and offers online support.
In the North East there is also the North East Apprenticeship Ambassadors and Young Apprenticeship Ambassadors Networks (NEAAN and NE YAAN) as well as North East Local Enterprise Partnership.
The government will contribute to the cost of apprenticeships. For companies with under 50 employees they will cover 100% of the training costs for apprenticeships aged 16-18, and there is support for apprentices up to age 24 as well. Plus, employers of all sizes will receive £1000 for every 16-18 year old apprentice they employ.