How to balance business requirements and study programmes

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How can employers balance off-the-job training against the needs of the business and the desire to fast-track apprenticeships?

Any employer who wishes to access funding for their apprentice needs to ensure they receive the mandatory six hours per week off-the-job training. This involves the apprentice spending at least six hours per week on developing the Knowledge Skills and Behaviours required in their apprenticeship, often with an external government-approved training provider. It’s here where they’ll learn practical skills such as costing, double-entry bookkeeping and ethical standards.

Since the off-the-job requirement was introduced in 2017, it hasn’t always been popular.

Some businesses have been slow to embrace it, complaining that it’s too restrictive, and that apprentices should not be spending one-fifth of their time away from their desks (especially during busy periods, such as preparing year-end accounts).  According to one survey by the City of London Corporation, more than half (52%) of businesses surveyed said off-the-job training deterred them from hiring apprentices.

Other employers get the balance with on-the-job work tasks wrong, putting pressure on apprentices and creating the potential for burnout as they are pulled in different directions.

But done right, off-the-job training can embed Skills and Behaviours that accelerate progress for both the business and the trainee.

“You could have somebody who whizzes through their AAT exams and be technically capable, but if they don’t have good communication skills, we can’t send them out to a client,” says Helen Organ (main picture), Early Careers Development Manager with major accountancy practice. “Likewise, we can’t have apprentices working within the client team if they don’t have good teamworking skills.”

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Success factors

Not all employers put enough thought into the work and study balance. Here are some keys to success:

  • Internal systems and rotas are needed to ensure apprentices/trainees receive adequate face-to-face on-the-job training (the EDSK report recommends a minimum of 200 hours).
  • Employers need to spend time finding the right training provider to deliver the mandatory 20 off-the-job training.
  • Employers need to give apprentices/trainees meaningful work tasks – the EDSK report found many apprentices were doing “dogsbody jobs” such as making tea and answering phones.
  • Managers need to relate work to apprentices’ off-the-job training.

So how do businesses design pathways correctly and get the balance right? Here we speak to three managers about how they have made it work.

1. Design the best off-the-job training

If your apprentice finds the off-the-job training too simplistic or too advanced, they’ll either be bored or disengaged when they come into the workplace.

The answer is to make sure your training provider develops an appropriate plan for your apprentices.

Sam Faulkner, recruitment consultant for the Welsh government, says training providers will sometimes need to make adjustments during the programme.

 “Our new recruits were initially struggling with doing the off-the-job training, but our training provider was brilliant in flexing the training offer to suit their needs and providing additional sessions.

“Flexing delivery plans and methods of delivery has been crucial in providing a truly hybrid experience, particularly for those apprentices with home/family commitments who might struggle to attend regular onsite training.” The training provider also included a fast-track session for some of the Welsh government’s Level 2 apprentices, who lacked a finance background and needed extra training.

Steph Simcox, Deputy Chief Finance Officer of Worcestershire County Council, has found it beneficial to stretch trainees.  The council utilises the Level 3 apprenticeship with elements of Level 2 Bookkeeping as a primer. Originally apprentices were spending a day a week with their training provider.

“Our previous trainees felt the training was relatively easy. [So] we increased the off-the-job training to 40% – that’s two days a week with the training provider rather than one!”

Consequently, students are racing through their Level 2 studies in three months, rather than the usual 9-12 months.  “They’ll go onto Level 3 once a week after that… We’re already seeing the benefit: once the apprentices returned to the office, I’ve noticed they now ask more questions when sitting with their mentors.”

2. Plan for presence in the office

As David Fields, Employer Engagement Manager at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), notes: “We’ve heard of some trainees turning up to an empty office or never meeting their line managers because senior staff are opting to work from home.” This was a problem highlighted in the EDSK report which found some trainees “can go weeks, sometimes months, without receiving any training from a mentor or industry expert.”

The solution? Quite simply, get your apprentices – and their line managers – back into the office. “Communicate with other members of the team, such as line managers and other experience ed colleagues, so they know part of their role is to train, mentor and support apprentices. Maybe a rota system will work best for your team, for example, with all finance staff coming into the workplace on two designated days every week. Unfortunately, you can’t leave it up to the trainee to decide when they should come into the office.”

3. Help line managers link up learning

Your apprentices may struggle to connect learnings from their off-the-job training within the application in the workplace.  

It’s crucial that line managers are well prepared. The employer needs to invest in training so they are properly attuned to the apprenticeship programme.

“Line managers connect the dots,” Fields explains. “It’s crucial they’re part of this conversation. They need to speak with the apprentice about what they’ve been learning in college, and the experiences they’re having within the office. Also, ensure that line managers allow apprentices to see what other jobs within the finance department entail.

“Giving the apprentice the opportunity to sit with the person doing VAT returns is a great way to understand the complexities of VAT, for example.”

Faulkner agrees: “To get the best out of our apprentices, we realise there needs to be a high level of investment and nurturing in our line managers too. Line managers should ring-fence time for their apprentices to undertake learning.”

Worcestershire County Council has given one employee the role of ‘apprenticeship mediator’ in addition to his day job. Simcox explains: “Sometimes apprentices get the theory [from off-the-job training] but don’t know how to relate this theory into practice. Our apprenticeship coordinator helps trainees make the link between what they’re studying on the syllabus such as income/expenditure accounts, and where they’re most likely to use that skill within the workplace. It helps make the studies ‘real’ for apprentices.”

4. Nurture motivation in the business

If apprentices feel they’re doing low-level work they will start to wonder if their qualification can ever lead to an exciting career.

The solution? Allocating a more senior ‘buddy’ to the apprentice. “Our apprentices receive a ‘buddy’ [an employee who is their professional senior by a year or two],” says Simcox. “It shows them that maybe this time next year, they could be achieving so many great things at work.”

It can also help with any professional questions the apprentice may have, says Faulkner. “Our apprentices are buddied up with a peer from a previous cohort, so if they have any concerns, they can raise them,” he says. “These are then fed back and dealt with quickly.”

Meanwhile, rotating apprentices among different departments gives them the opportunity to sample different jobs within the workplace, perhaps finding a role that suits them. “Our trainees are on a rotating apprenticeship: rather than spending two years sitting with the same team, they spend six months working with different departments, such as our internal audit service, transactional service,” says Simcox. “After 18 months, these apprentices should have a better idea of what they’d like to do with their career. For example, some people prefer working in customer-facing environments; others with spreadsheets and systems.”

Also, try making any on-the-job learning ‘fun’, says Fields, “Create a fun environment where apprentices can meet people in real life, and not on Zoom. Team lunches, meetings and away-days all work well.”

5. Foster interaction between your apprentices

Giving apprentices the freedom to establish their own initiatives can be inspiring. The apprentices at Worcestershire County Council had an interesting idea – which Simcox let them develop, as she explains here.

“During the pandemic, we had a group of 10 apprentices who decided they wanted weekly training meetings, which they would chair themselves,” she says. “They set the agenda for these meetings, invited guests such as senior managers to speak, and took notes. They also set up their own WhatsApp groups and social networking. As a result, they became a close group which learned from each other, The experience of chairing meetings boosted their confidence too.”

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Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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