Pennies and pounds? Why supporting small businesses is key to Apprenticeship growth

Continuing our regular series of blogs, here Paddy Patterson of Maverish Ltd and founder of Oxfordshire Apprenticeships discusses the need to support small businesses with Apprenticeship recruitment.

We all know the expression about pennies and pounds, right? The idea being that if you look after the smaller elements, they can add up to something much more significant.  Well, that’s how I’ve always viewed the challenge of increasing the number of Apprenticeship opportunities being created. I said in a previous blog that I felt if we are going to achieve 3m new Apprenticeships in the next five years, we need to be more responsive to SMEs. This is hardly a revolutionary insight, of course. The valuable Holt Review in 2012 essentially said that if the proportion of small businesses employing Apprentices was on a par with that of large businesses, then we’d see numbers grow on an unprecedented scale.

I do understand the difficulties with reaching small businesses. There are so many of them, for a start (around 97% of all businesses in Oxfordshire are SMEs); they are spread far and wide; can be hard to make contact with; and are often too busy with the demands of the business to take time out to look into things that could actually help them, such as recruiting and training staff. Furthermore, we’re up against a lot of inaccurate and/or negative perceptions around costs, recruitment and general ‘bureaucracy’.

All of which means when it comes to getting small businesses interested in Apprenticeships, it’s hard work, it’s time consuming and often leads to dead ends for any number of reasons. But when it comes off, it’s well worth it and there is no better way of letting a small business know that they can do it, than by showing them or introducing them to another small business who has been through it themselves.

Which is why in the run up to Small Business Saturday this week, it’s great to see Oxfordshire Apprenticeships offering a series of ‘Small Business drop-ins’, hosted, naturally, by small businesses in busy high streets across the county. It’s surprising the number of people who will approach you if they see ‘Apprenticeships’ on your shirt and say things like “I’d quite like to take on an Apprentice but don’t know who to speak to!” And it’s less surprising that these are often employers who don’t attend business networks or wouldn’t have even seen, let along responded to an advert or Facebook post, so being active, being visible and being approachable is critical.

Which reminds me of the conversation that really helped shape Oxfordshire Apprenticeships in the early days back in 2012, with Ray Avery who runs Bloxham Mill Business Centre, near Banbury. Ray is very well known in the business community across the county, yet his experience of getting anyone to take the time to talk to him about Apprenticeships was frustrating, even maddening. Cold-calls, no calls, jargon, red-tape and confusion – and that was just my description of it! 

And that scenario doesn’t just mean one dissatisfied ‘customer’. Bad news travels fast and I know from experience how a small business with a bad experience of Apprenticeships can multiply into making a great number of others reluctant to try. Happily for me, Ray was willing to help us come up with a response. “All it needs is someone to come out to see businesses on their patch and explain how it works, what’s in it for us and answer our questions” was Ray’s sentiment and that’s generally true of most small businesses I’ve come across. 

And so our no-nonsense ‘Making Sense Of Apprenticeships’ business briefings were born, the first held – naturally – at Bloxham Mill. We’ve done a fair few of them since up and down the county.  Sometimes to packed out rooms, sometimes to a much smaller audience but worth it every time. At our last event in September, one employer said; “This is exactly what small businesses need, but I can’t understand why this room isn’t bursting at the seams!”  To me that means we’re on the right track but we have to keep at it to help achieve the Apprenticeship growth required in Oxfordshire and beyond.  

Of course, OA’s ‘offer’ doesn’t end there. For those who can’t get to events or drop-ins, they can get excellent factsheets from a website, they can email, link in on social media including a weekly tweet-in, and perhaps most importantly, phone and speak to someone who will come and visit them. Reaching the parts that other Apprenticeship services don’t reach!

What do you think? How do we make sure we are reaching all of our potential small business customers? What is your experience, either as a training provider, or as someone working in or running a small business? Get in touch, we'd love to hear from you!

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Tel: 01865 323477, Email: info@oxfordshireapprenticeships.co.uk, Twitter: @OxonApprentice, Facebook: /OxfordshireApprenticeships.