Upskilling Staff During The Pandemic

Issue 76

What are the benefits of continuing to deliver apprenticeships - despite the impact of COVID - for employers? One North East business explains the effect apprenticeships can have on skills, staff retention and business performance.

We know that businesses have a lot on their plates at the moment, adjusting to new ways of working and navigating the ongoing challenges brought by the pandemic. But despite that, many have continued to offer apprenticeships for school leavers, and to use higher-level apprenticeships as a way of upskilling their existing staff.

One North East business which has prioritised apprenticeships is Newcastlebased NEL Fund Managers, which offers loans and investments to businesses in the region. Abigail Cook completed her Level 4 apprenticeship in Accounting – which is equivalent to a foundation degree – during the pandemic, and is now progressing on to Level 7, which is at postgraduate level.

As Yvonne Gale, Chief Executive Officer at NEL Fund Managers, said: “During the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic everything was temporarily disrupted and for people in a developmental role it’s important they don’t feel like they’re going to be left on the sidelines.

“Apprenticeships could have been something that was easily left on the shelf but we didn’t want to do that; we felt it was really important to keep pushing to make sure it continued.”

So what does a business gain from continuing to offer apprenticeships? Yvonne explains: “Although we do a lot of learning in the workplace, I think it’s really important people have external learning as well. People in a developmental role will bring improvements to processes as they go, so if they’re only learning in the workplace, where are they going to get that knowledge? We really want people to experience that crosspollination from training in the workplace in addition to the external perspectives offered through an apprenticeship.

“The other benefit is that apprenticeships offer a structured programme and for small businesses, it’s quite difficult to deliver a three-year structured training programme. Going onto a planned apprenticeship means someone takes on the care of that structured programme for us, and makes sure it happens.”

Apprenticeships aren’t just for school leavers – they can also be used to upskill existing staff and can have a positive effect on staff retention.

“NEL Fund Managers focuses a lot of emphasis on staff retention; over 50% of our staff has been with us for 10 years or more. You can’t just assume people will stay, you have to offer them progression and the best way to do that is through training. We’re keen to support people who want to continue to learn and develop because we want to keep those members of staff and we want to keep their skills too,” said Yvonne.

And there’s a financial benefit to apprenticeships as well. For employers whose pay bill is less than £3 million a year, you pay just 5% towards the cost of training an apprentice.

“The apprenticeship system really works for us as an employer. The course Abigail is currently doing – had we been paying that ourselves – would cost £20k. For a small business that’s a huge amount of money. Because of the apprenticeship system we’ve been able to get that for 5% of the cost – so it costs us £1k for a £20k piece of training,” said Yvonne Gale.

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