Apprentices have a great deal to offer the UK’s 5.4 million small businesses

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Apprenticeships have enjoyed a fair share of the limelight so far this year.

Not only did March’s National Apprenticeship Week take place soon after the increase in the apprentice wage rate and forthcoming introduction of the apprenticeship levy, but also in the wake of the Government announcing its aim to fund some three million new apprenticeships by 2020, which the levy will help to fund. There’s been a positive start on that front, with participation in apprenticeship schemes up to a record 871,000 during the 2014/15 tax year.

But if apprenticeships are going to hit such heady heights in the future, they are undoubtedly going to need the support of small and medium-sized enterprises, who make up well in excess of 99% of all UK businesses.  Many of those companies are already realising the benefits of having apprentices on board, with our latest research showing that two in five (39%) of those SMEs with at least ten employees in place took on at least one new apprentice in the past twelve months. That figure falls, however, to just one in ten (10%) of companies that have less than ten employees, demonstrating how those smallest businesses may have greater time and resource constraints when it comes to introducing an effective apprenticeship scheme.

Moreover, apprenticeships bring with them longer-term benefits – not only to the individual who is being trained, but for the greater good of the employee too. Of those SME owners we spoke to who have taken on apprentices in the past, nearly half (44%) – representing all industries and sectors – have kept on at least half of them.

And the benefits don’t stop there. Back in 2014, an AAT report  put the value of apprenticeships to the wider British economy at £1.8 billion – a figure that, according to the Centre for Economics, will rise to over £100 billion by 2050. Growing apprenticeship schemes can help more young people get good jobs in the sector that best suits their skills and talents; bring immediate benefits to smaller businesses who may be crying out for support in key areas such as HR, IT or finance; and help the economy remain on its path towards a budget surplus.

But the pathway to growth doesn’t just lie with our businesses taking on more apprentices without any wider encouragement from the regulators. Our survey also tells us that nearly one in four (23%) SME owners believe that the ability to hire apprentices on a part time basis would help them bring more into their business. One in five owners (19%) cited less red tape surrounding the process of hiring apprentices as a positive consideration, while one in six (17%) said that there should be more local council or government initiatives in place to support businesses taking more apprentices on.

Apprenticeships mean putting true investment into an individual and then reaping the rewards of the contribution that they make. Businesses have the ability to shape an employee into a particular role, meaning that their company benefits in the areas where they need to most. We therefore urge small businesses to consider what role they can play within their organisations, as well as policy-makers to continue to smooth the pathway for companies bringing more apprentices into the system.

Mark Farrar is the Chief Executive of AAT.

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