· Features

How to solve skills shortages with apprenticeships

It is no secret that employers UK-wide have a problem with skills gaps. Whether due to the Great Resignation, the Great Retirement, staff shortages or a general war for talent, businesses are having to find more creative ways to fill their staff with the skills they need

Could apprenticeships be the way to solve these skills shortages? This was the question we put to a panel of experts, in our HR Lunchtime Debate in partnership with Nottingham Trent University.


Putting apprenticeships in the spotlight

When polled, 64% of our webinar audience said that apprenticeships were overlooked by HR for their potential to fill skills gaps, a result which took some of the panel by surprise.

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As chief of people and culture at Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, Elizabeth Nyawade has seen first-hand how apprenticeships can strengthen the workforce.

She said: “Based on my experience, it was such a blessing to have apprenticeships. They have really helped us to grow and to start looking at that future workforce.

“We’re in an environment where it’s just part of the norm and part of what we do – it’s really well established now.”

Apprenticeships have helped create a solid pipeline of future nurses, she said, adding: “It’s this incredible mix of having colleagues already working on the ground, while they’re also learning and also ensuring your future pipeline for talent.

“The future workforce is almost being guaranteed because you’ve got the people there, and you’re growing them. It’s a way to retain them and improve on what they’re doing.”

Richard Waite, people and culture director at professional services giant Grant Thornton UK, said the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017 has helped businesses to take schemes more seriously.

He said: “HR teams have had to get a lot smarter in terms of how we reinvest that money into learning and development through apprenticeships for our people.

“So, I think they’re overlooked less so than they were five-plus years ago.”

Hayley White, early careers manager at food company Greencore, said apprenticeships have certain benefits when compared to other types of training.

She said: “We utilise apprenticeships for entry talent, but also our existing people as well, and how we can support their personal and professional development.

“One of the benefits is a more hands-on approach, as opposed to other types of training. We’re able to see up-to-date developments through the knowledge applied in real time in the business, and you can also see reverse mentorship through that as well.

“We get new insights that perhaps people who are more established in the business may not be familiar with themselves.”


Retention rather than attraction

As well as being good for attracting new talent to an organisation, apprenticeships have proved to be a useful tool for keeping staff around.

Nyawade described apprenticeships as a great retention mechanism, citing their usefulness in terms of career development. She also noted that the arrangement was great for the individual as well as the organisation.

“It’s about improving on their skills in a way that it’s balanced; you’re still at work and you’re still growing your knowledge. You’re doing both, but you’re not exclusively in an educational institution,” she said.

“You get a private practitioner element, you also get the theory element, and you’re growing and advancing in your career.”

Waite was encouraged by the number of people in senior positions who were turning to apprenticeships to upskill themselves.

“We’ve got really great examples of senior people doing high level apprenticeships in project management, management and leadership.

“Some of our most senior people within the organisation are enrolled on apprenticeships and it gives us really nice case studies and stories to talk about within the organisation to help bring that ‘we help you excel’ premise to life for 5,000 people who work here.”

White added that apprenticeships help give a lifeline to workers who may be looking to break into the career they believe is right for them.

She said: “Apprenticeships are a really good way to offer an opportunity for those to upskill who might not have had the chance earlier on in their career, especially those who might have stumbled into an accidental career working in manufacturing from previously [working in] a retail environment.”

Leadership and management roles, White added, have been popular among those changing careers.

“Some people are probably not recognising that they have those management and leadership qualities early on when they started out or even that that might be a career path, so we definitely see it in that space,” she added.

“We also see it where people move to some technical roles – engineering is a big one for us at the moment.

“We recognise that we need to meet customer demand, we’re going to grow and we’re going to need lots more engineers in the future.

“We’re able to get those opportunities to people who may have only started on the line, but actually they’ve got a passion for engineering, so we can grow our own through that space as well.”


Navigating the challenges

It isn’t easy to put apprenticeships schemes in place. Viewers said that the time needed away from work to participate in building the content for the scheme were the biggest obstacles.

White argued that employers need to have a good relationship with the training providers to help mitigate any difficulties.

“It helps them to understand what the needs are of your business and how they can build that apprenticeship around it,” she said.

“I think it comes hand in hand with time needed off the job because if you build the scheme in the right way, you can quite easily manage time off the job.”

Getting the timing right is crucial to making apprenticeships work, according to Waite.

“Part of it is understanding that an apprenticeship isn’t right for everybody all the time.

“So, it’s about the right people attracted to it at the right point in their career.”


Watch all past HR Lunchtime Debates here.


The full piece of the above appears in the May/June 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.