Do apprenticeships create social impact? #NAW2023

It’s National Apprenticeship Week.

We’re often asked by clients whether they should report on apprenticeships programmes as part of their corporate social responsibility or social impact measures.

And the answer is yes and no.

What is the point of apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships are an inherently good thing.

A structured, and quality-assured way to combine ordinary work, with supported on-the-job training and off-the-job training provided by vocational training specialists.

There are apprenticeship standards in almost every sector, ranging from level 2 (equivalent difficulty to GSCE) through to post-graduate equivalent higher apprenticeships at levels 7 and 8.

The best thing about apprenticeships, when they work, is the triangular collaboration between worker/learner, employer and training provider (which could be an FE college, independent training company, a training arm of the employer itself or a university).

They have a dual purpose of promoting useful learning, against industry standards, with external verification to people starting out in a new career or vocational area – and of often enabling social mobility and opportunities for people to progress and unlock potential without having to pay for a traditional university degree.

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Are you ‘giving back’, if you take on apprentices?

Maybe. But this shouldn’t be your primary motivation.

If you have a whole apprenticeship programme, or just take one or two, then it should be because it is in your growth, recruitment and staff development plans.

It is an enhanced way to provide simultaneous work and training, that complements your other team development strategies.

It is not charitable.

Now, as with any other part of your business, you could use your apprenticeship programme to create some social value.

You could provide a supported apprenticeship programme, in which you are actively looking to provide meaningful employment to an adult with special educational needs or learning difficulties.

You could decide that you will actively recruit apprentices who are traditionally under-represented in your sector, and create partnerships with local schools and colleges to be clear how you are building an inclusive recruitment programme in order to get the most diverse workforce possible.

I dream of world when this is the norm, not added value or social impact. But, right now, this would involve putting in extra time and resources in order to level the playing field. And that is something your team could feel motivated about.

Is there such as thing as #apprenticewashing…?

Um, no. That sounds like a safeguarding issue.

But the apprenticeship levy for larger businesses, and the constant reform to funding rules, does mean that pretty-much any working adult can be registered onto an apprenticeship programme as long as it is introducing a new skillset.

So you decide. Are these two scenarios equivalent?

  1. Creating a programme of meaningful entry-level jobs, with aspiration and depth of training at the centre, focused on promoting social mobility create
  2. Putting an executive team, who are already graduates, onto new degree apprenticeships in digital marketing using a levy to fund it that can’t be spent on anything else.

I support training and life-long learning whenever and wherever it happens. But the question of how much social value it creates is a question that businesses have to ask themselves.

Social value scoring

If you are tendering to provide services to the public sector, chances are you will have to demonstrate your planned social value in a quantifiable way. Any social value generated by the contract you want to win, must be above and beyond anything delivered by the contract (eg. you can’t claim things that need to happen as part of the contract anyway, and would be paid for through the agreed fee).

Taking on apprentices is nearly always an agreed method of generating social value, as defined by frameworks such as TOMS and the Social Value Charter.

So if you are planning to take on apprentices in the near future, and you are planning to bid for some public sector contracts – then these may be advantageous to each other. Look carefully at the financial value that the framework offers you. On one contract I was helping a client with, the social value value for taking on an apprentice was £2,500, whereas for employing someone who had been long-term unemployed would have been worth £15,000 (with no obligation to release them for training sessions). It doesn’t always make complete sense.

Spotlight on good practice

The always possible team have been helping businesses to develop effective apprenticeship programmes for many years. We have also been working at the heart of the vocational education sector, with colleges and training providers commissioning support with training and course design. We are specialists in enabling employers and training providers to co-design innovative projects together.

Apprenticeships can be transformational. Not just for the trainee, but for the employer.

If it is seen as simply a source of cheap labour at one of the ethics spectrum, or a grand act of CSR at the other, then you’ve approached it badly.

We have been working with The Royal Opera House on how to make their world class stagecraft and technical apprenticeships and work experience programmes more inclusive, especially when such a heritage brand might not be at the top of a low socio-economic college leavers’ list. But they know this needs to change, otherwise an institute that needs a pipeline of exceptional talent is fishing in a very small pond.

We always enjoy working with the team at GM Monk. A fast-growing, family-run electrical installation company in Eastbourne – this business puts more energy and attention into its apprenticeship programme than anyone I know. And not only has that opened doors – with our encouragement, the Managing Director Scott now chairs the regional taskgroup on skills in the construction sector – it has driven the company’s growth and access to talent by over 50%.

The brilliant team at Amazing Apprenticeships are the go-to place for national resources and playbooks on everything to do with the programme.

Industry insight

Bird & Blend is a multi award-winning retail and wholesale premium tea company. Indie tea legends, in fact. It is an accredited BCorp, and is clear and confident about its values, and how that drives a business that does SO much more than sell tea.

We asked Co-founder and Creative Director Krisi Smith whether she valued apprenticeships.

I’m very proud of what we do it at Bird & Blend – and if there’s one thing that I wished that we could impact more, it would be that the role that a business can play in an individual’s education.

I don’t just mean academic education, but access to conversations and learning and thoughts. To people who have different opinions, the things that are going on in the world.

As a young person, trying to learn about yourself and about what you want, and being in an environment where you have access to those sorts of conversations, and that sort of learning would have been invaluable to me.

And that’s something that we’re working on bringing in. We already do to some extent – we do a lot of internal training and a lot of a lot of stuff to try and just bring people together, and make sure that everyone knows that no topic is off the table. And if you want to talk about certain things, the workplace is a safe space to talk about that.

I strongly, strongly disagree with the notion that you have to be degree educated to be learning or going into a higher level job. Obviously if you need certain experience, I get that, but some of the smartest people, and the quickest learning curves I’ve seen, have been people we’ve taken on as apprentices and straight out of school.

And actually it’s usually those people that don’t know what they’re doing, don’t know if uni is right for them. So they’re open to jumping in to learning in a job based environment where they absorb everything like a sponge.

And some of the apprentices we’ve had are on big salaries with really great titles – that they would never have been able to go on and do if they hadn’t done three years with us.

But not every business does that.

Our apprentices talk to their classmates about other businesses, and they get asked, “well, what do you do?” – and they might say “at the moment, I’m owning SEO at Bird & Blend; I’m going to the BrightonSEO conference on behalf of the company; what are you doing?”. And they hear “oh, well, I answered the phone, and I do some data entry…”

So if businesses are going to use the apprenticeship scheme, just to pay a tiny wage to get the mundane jobs done, that’s not OK. I’m not gonna get my soapbox out, but I really hate it.

Do you want to define, measure and communicate your superstar apprenticeship offer and strategy? Call us to get some tips.