Calling all the heroes! What business awards can do for Apprenticeships

With the launch of the Cherwell Business Awards and Plus One Personnel Employee of the Year Awards in early November and the Oxfordshire Business Awards 2016 launch a month later, Paddy Patterson of Maverish Ltd and founder of Oxfordshire Apprenticeships, discusses why ‘mainstream’ business awards for Apprentices are vital in helping the programme “become the norm”.

I’ve attended all sorts of Apprenticeship-focused Awards. Run by employers, councils, training providers, the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and so on. I can’t say I’ve ever grown tired of seeing the skills and commitment of Apprentices, or the businesses who support them, being celebrated and recognised. Yet, while there is always tremendous interest within the room and the Apprenticeship fraternity, I often wondered who else ‘outside’ of our sector noticed or paid any attention?

When in 2013, I suggested approaching the Oxfordshire Business Awards Committee to see if OA could sponsor an Apprenticeship award, I’m not sure everyone was convinced. There were feelings that we should have our own separate Apprentice awards, or that we might just be adding more into an already busy Apprenticeship awards calendar. I was also half-expecting a polite decline from the OBA Committee who I thought might not see Apprenticeships as prestigious or appealing enough a category. I needn’t have worried; they were very enthusiastic and felt it complemented their other categories well.

Which was the motivation behind wanting to do it in the first place. The government talks a lot about Apprenticeships “becoming the norm” for school-leavers, and I believe a similar mindset is needed in strengthening the relationship between Apprenticeships and the business world. By putting Apprenticeships onto the main programme for awards, we are making a clear link between skills development and business excellence.

But it’s not as easy as just putting your name to a category then waiting for the entries to roll in.…

It’s not easy getting entrants!

One of the main challenges is enticing people to enter. Ideally we want a diverse field of entries in terms of geography, sector and company size etc. But many businesses tell us that they either don’t have the time to fill in forms, provide supporting evidence and testimony, or don’t have the ‘knack’ of it and find it all a bit daunting.

Apprentices themselves have mixed feelings both about being under the spotlight and certainly about putting themselves forward. One of the OA Apprenticeship Ambassadors, Laura Cunningham, said; “I wouldn’t put myself forward for an award as I would be seen as biased! I would definitely nominate someone else but I would feel a more worthy winner if my organisation nominated me!”. Others though weren’t quite so reserved!

It could be you….no, really, it could!

Another barrier is organisations feeling that they are not big enough or fashionable enough to win awards. There is something of a perception that only companies of a certain size or in certain sectors ‘get the nod’ as it were. We very consciously try to ensure our criteria does not lend to bias. It’s also important to go and actually meet those shortlisted, as it can give a different perspective on what is in the entry form (and that can go either way!). By having this two-stage approach, it really helps get under the fingernails of a nominee’s credentials and ensures we judge entrants by more than just their writing skills or their company size or turnover. 

Simon Newton, Commercial Director at electrical services firm Darke & Taylor, who entered the OA ‘Apprenticeship of the Year’ at this year’s Oxfordshire Business Awards recalls; “Our initial thoughts were that we would be up against some serious competition from some very big companies, so that our chances of winning were slim.” Which made their subsequent victory very rewarding! More about them in a minute….

We can argue about the numbers, but if there have been 2 million new Apprentices in the past five years, and another 3 million planned in the next five, that’s a seriously high number of people entering industry via Apprenticeships. So surely it’s a natural progression that businesses and individuals being recognized for Apprenticeship excellence should become as prestigious as being recognized for Marketing or New Business excellence?

Simon Newton from Darke & Taylor is in no doubt about the link between his firm’s commitment to Apprenticeships, and overall success of the company…and continues his recollection of the OBAs earlier in the year; “At the end of the evening we won the overall Oxfordshire Business of the Year Award, which was something we really did not expect.  The long list of previous winners contains a number of household names, and to see our name now on that list is a real achievement. We are sure that the longevity of our commitment to apprenticeships was a real factor in us being awarded this accolade.”

And what about the impact on Apprentices themselves?  Rob South was a Team Management Apprentice at the New Inn in Middleton Cheney, and won the ‘Apprentice of the Year’ category at the Banbury Business Awards earlier this year. Rob explains; “My first thoughts were ‘wow!’, it is so good they are recognising people who do apprenticeships and was over the moon just to be nominated.  On the day of the awards, I met loads of different people who had been nominated in other categories. When Sir Tony Baldry announced the Apprenticeship category, we were all given a letter of invitation to the Houses of Parliament! Just to get this was fantastic. Then he called my name and said that I had WON, I was over the moon and so grateful to have won! Winning this award has opened so many doors for me. I have been invited to different events to meet new people and talk about the Apprenticeship awards.” 

So what do you think? Do you think Apprenticeships have a place in ‘mainstream’ Business Awards? Is there still a credibility issue? Have you or your company been up for an Apprenticeship Award, or even won one? Who should do the nominations? Let us know what you think!

Pictured is Apprenticeship Ambassador and Darke & Taylor Apprentice James celebrating at the Oxfordshire Business Awards.