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Jeweller offers a nugget of wisdom

29 August 2012

The award-winning jeweller and craft training entrepreneur, Jason Holt, has delivered his report and recommendations on apprenticeships to government.

Back in February, the award-winning jeweller and founder of the Holts Academy for aspiring jewellery craftsmen and women, Jason Holt, was approached by the secretaries of state for business and education to find out why the UK's SMEs lagged so far behind their bigger counterparts in terms of apprenticeship take-up.

On Wednesday August 29, Holt’s report - Making Apprenticeships More Accessible to Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises – was duly published. It revealed that the proportion of take-up of apprenticeships among SMEs is, at best, just under ten percent - less than half that of larger companies, despite SMEs making up an estimated 99 percent of all UK businesses. Drawing on his discussions with small firms, Holt pointed to a 'lack of awareness' among small businesses - not just about the benefits of taking on apprentices in the first place, but how to go about recruiting and training them.

As the lead author of this report, Jason Holt's credentials are cast iron (though I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate this particular metallurgical metaphor in his line of business). He has transformed the way Hatton Garden trains the next generation of designers and manufacturers, with his Holts Academy offering the only accredited apprenticeship scheme in the jewellery industry. The Academy now trains around a thousand jewellery designers and manufacturers at three London locations.

“Whilst apprenticeships offer undoubted growth opportunities for businesses, not enough SMEs are taking advantage," says Mr Holt. "This is because they have an outdated view of apprenticeships, are often in the dark, and frequently do not receive the specific training provision their apprentices need. My recommendations are intended to address these issues, with government, employers and providers all playing a part.”

Education secretary Michael Gove and business secretary Vince Cable were quick off the mark with their respective responses, both welcoming the report and its recommendations. Gove agreed that employers, and not the training providers, needed to be given the power and freedom to shape their apprenticeships, while Cable pledged to make a difference by raising awareness of the benefits of apprenticeships amongst SMEs and making it as easy as possible for them to take on an apprentice. But it was down to skills minister John Hayes to present a raft of new measures designed to meet these goals.

Among these new measures, the government has agreed to work with the people that SMEs look to for advice, including lawyers and accountants, to promote apprenticeships to their SME customers. It also promises to give SMEs a greater say in developing the skills they are seeking, and to keep on top of the training providers – improving performance where necessary by agreeing standards and laying down the consequences of not meeting them. Moreover, the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers is to be improved by making the grant award process simpler and accessible to more employers.

Tim Thomas, head of employment and skills at the Engineering Employers' Federation (EEF), said his members will welcome these measures, but wants to see tangible progress, which he believes has been too slow of late. Mr Thomas singles out the requirements of the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers scheme, in particular, as being an obstacle to progress.

"Relaxing the requirements in the way government has outlined will allow businesses to take on more apprentices and offer these invaluable opportunities to young people,” he says, pointing out that the grant is relatively small in comparison to the overall cost of delivering manufacturing apprenticeships. Mr Thomas says there are other issues to address, not least being the careers advice service, the status of vocational education and the regulatory burden that still prevents many small businesses from taking on apprentices.

Jim Bligh, CBI head of labour market policy, says Holt’s report shows just how complex the current process has become. “SMEs need better local advice and systems in place which help them get started providing on-the-job training for new apprentices,” he says. “Making sure SMEs realise the value of taking on apprentices is critical, and incentives like the newly expanded Apprenticeships Grant for Employers can make all the difference.”

David Way, chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) sits on the support and funding side of these issues. He believes Holt’s recommendations provide an opportunity to refresh and streamline the services his organisation extends to small employers, and agrees that employers need to be made more aware of the support available from NAS and other similar organisations.

According to NAS, the reforming process starts with a revised Apprenticeship Grant for Employers of a single £1,500 payment. The grant will now be available for up to ten apprentices and medium sized companies with up to 1,000 employees can now benefit. The scheme is designed to help as many as 40,000 employers to take apprentices aged between 16 and 24 into their businesses.

NAS claims there is a lot of momentum at present behind ensuring employers feel real ownership of apprenticeships. It has pledged to simplify and speed up the process so that smaller organisations do not feel overwhelmed by bureaucracy.

Jason Holt’s report can be read online here

Les Hunt

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