We all understand the value of apprenticeships, and what a great way they are for companies to take on junior employees and train them up. ‘Big Corporations’ have people whose sole job is to run their apprenticeship schemes; onboard these new recruits and work them through the system. But what do you do if you are a small company? When roles are blurred because there is more work than people, and everyone is always a little too busy?
When the apprenticeship levy was introduced in April 2017, only the big corporations who were required to pay the levy were able to actually access the funds to support the training of apprentices. Since January 2020, smaller companies that do not pay the apprenticeship levy were given the chance to access the funds to cover up to 90% of the cost of apprenticeship training.
Despite the funding being made available, smaller companies (like Surevine) are still wary about taking on an apprentice. For us, the primary concerns were:
Supporting our apprentice in the workplace (how could we do this and who could do it?)
The long-term commitment (can we be sure we can do this for the long haul?)
Working remotely (can apprentices even work from home?!)
Availability of our apprentice and off-the-job training (how much time do they need away from work, how will we manage this?)
And the big one, what if the content of the course doesn’t align with our work?
Our first step
Surevine got our first apprentice a little by accident. We had a candidate apply for a role with us, and only in the interview process did we find out he was part-way through an apprentice with one of the big corporations. So without much planning or worrying we just decided to jump in! His University (who had never transferred an apprentice from a big corporation on a well established program ,to an SME with no experience of this world at all) jumped with us… and this is what we found.
One of our first concerns was funding. Doesn’t higher education cost thousands?! We quickly discovered that not only do companies with a wage bill of less than £3million not pay the apprentice levy, but we can claim up to 90% of the course fees for the apprentice! For Surevine this meant the levy covered £8,100 of the university fees, and we only had to contribute £900 per year. First hurdle, done!
Our next step was to understand our apprentices time at work vs University hours (‘off-the-job training’). We had to sign a ‘Commitment Statement’ from the University which outlined our commitment to ensuring that our apprentice had 20% of their contracted hours reserved for off-the-job training.
Off-the-job training typically consists of attending university lectures, studying skills for their job and working on coursework and assignments. As this time was (helpfully) scheduled in advance, we were able to build this into our project forecasts and planning.
While this isn’t the usual start, we took on an apprentice who was half-way through their studies; so they were able to rapidly get up to speed with the team and contribute to the projects they were allocated to. Given this experience, we are now confident that we could support an apprentice from the start and help them to develop both their technical skills and key professional behaviours.
And maybe it was us (it wasn’t), maybe it was him (it was), or maybe it was a really great combination of both (maybe)… but we were so impressed we nominated our apprentice for the BCS Software Developer & Tester Apprentice of the Year and HE WON IT!
Safe to say, we will be doing this again.
Our apprentices’ experience
I was in the first intake of software engineering degree apprentices after the scheme was announced. I was repeatedly told by my teachers that I should go directly to university instead, but I took the risk in pursuing this opportunity. While my experience wasn’t ideal (dealing with transfers in my training providers resulting in delaying my graduation), I am so happy with my decision. I’ve gained years of valuable experience, learnt from some of the best engineers in the industry and earned a growing salary throughout.
I took another risk in transferring my apprenticeship to Surevine, a small company who were eager and flexible enough to try it out. Transferring an apprenticeship was relatively unheard of at the time, with few resources showing it was even possible, let alone giving any guidance. I’m very happy with this decision as I was able to experience what it was like working for a much more dynamic and agile company. I became familiar with many newer, more interesting technologies and became more confident in leading projects and having a more direct and meaningful impact. This also had a positive impact on some of my fellow cohort of apprentices who found themselves other opportunities, to take their apprenticeship with them.
The cost of student finance has continued to rise since I started my apprenticeship, with the next intake of students in September 2023 expected to pay twice as much towards their student loan compared to the previous intake. This makes degree apprenticeships an even more attractive opportunity for young people as an alternative to going directly to university. While big corporations can find it easy to provide these opportunities, there is room for smaller companies like Surevine to benefit from taking on apprentices. I’m so happy to have worked with Surevine to demonstrate the value that small companies can get from apprenticeships.
With the continued rise in cost of living, education, housing and issues of intergenerational inequality, degree apprenticeships are a refreshing opportunity for young people to get ahead and kickstart a career where their skills are in high demand.