From fish and chips to ring mains

After 19 years in the catering business, running a number of award-winning fish and chip shops in East Yorkshire, Tracey Poskitt knows a thing or two about training and developing staff. So when she opened Fish and Chips @ 149, with business partner Matthew Silk, four years ago, she was keen to employ apprentices she could train on the job.

“It’s a fish and chip shop, but we have our own way of doing things,” she explains. “Our customer service is fantastic. We use the best quality products and we don’t put anything out that’s not top-notch. We like to take on fresh staff, so we can teach them in our way.”

It is clearly an approach that has paid off. Last year, the Bridlington-based business was named Fish and Chip Shop of The Year by the industry body Seafish.

It also won the small employer of the year award for the Yorkshire and Humber region in the Top 100 Apprentice Employers awards, backed by the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and City & Guilds vocational qualifications body.

And there are other benefits to growing your own talent, says Ms Poskitt. Having trainees working in the shop, who spend some of their time at college, mixing with apprentices from other local businesses, can breed fresh ideas.

“They’ll come back from college and say ‘shall we try this dish?’ We’re now doing Red Snapper, which is quite an unusual fish, and that’s an idea which came from one of our apprentices. It just helps to give them more of an interest.”

Around a fifth of Honda’s UK workforce is made up of current or former apprentices

Employing apprentices can also have a direct impact on the bottom line of the business, says Lindsey Young, human resources and training director at Clarkson Evans, a Gloucestershire-based electrical installation company.

“Clearly you have to make an investment upfront to get a return, but there are benefits further down the line when you have a fully qualified member of staff who understands how your business works, buys into the company ethos and demonstrates a real commitment to wanting to work with us,” says Ms Young.

“We have found that when we take people on who are already fully qualified, but who have done their training somewhere else, they don’t always fit in. We have to invest in more training to get them up to scratch.”

But this is not to say that apprentices can’t generate revenue, even in the earliest stage of their training, says Paul Taylor, technical operations manager at Honda, which was recently rated outstanding in 18 of the 20 areas in its apprenticeship programme by the education and training inspectorate Ofsted.

The car and motorbike manufacturer estimates around a fifth of its UK workforce is made up of current or former apprentices and, depending on the nature of the programme, (car, motorcycle or power and marine equipment), an apprenticeship can take up to three years to complete.

“Taking cars as an example, we work on the basis of 25 per cent efficiency in the first year, 50 per cent in the second year, rising up to 100 per cent in the third year,” Mr Taylor says of the apprenticeship programme which has been running for over a decade. “So, in theory, you can have apprentices servicing and repairing cars from day one, meaning they are adding value to the business. It’s certainly not a cost to the employer.”

And having apprentices working in the business can also provide a morale boost for other employees, he says. “Many of Honda’s apprenticeship trainers started off as apprentices themselves. When you ask more experienced staff to work with trainees, to pass on what they know, it can create a real feel-good factor. People feel proud to say ‘I’ve got an apprentice working with me’.”

But the real payback comes further down the line, through retention of staff and promotion of former apprentices, who understand the company culture and ethos, into more senior roles. As Ms Young points out, a robust apprenticeship scheme can be an invaluable succession-planning tool, particularly in companies with an ageing workforce where “fresh blood” is needed.

According to a recent survey carried out by City & Guilds, which looked at the attitudes of more than 300 employers across 31 different industry areas, what employers really rate about apprentices is the range of skills and experience they acquire during their training, as well as a life-long commitment to continued training and career development.

“We work closely with employers of all sizes who tell us that apprenticeships are a great way to fill skills gaps, increase productivity, and develop the committed, loyal and competent workforce they need to be competitive at home and abroad,” says Chris Jones, chief executive and director general of City & Guilds.

“Aside from the monetary benefits, apprenticeships provide organisations with a dynamic pool of talent. Once they have completed their training, apprentices can jump straight into work, contributing from day one,” he says. “Their training gives them the confidence and the skills they need to excel and thrive in a working environment, resulting in lower overall training and recruitment costs, and placing them in good stead to progress to a successful and fulfilling career.”

But the research also highlighted that the majority of employers (80 per cent) believe there are significant barriers to hiring apprentices. Around 25 per cent feel there is still too much bureaucracy involved, while 19 per cent feel the current economic climate makes it too risky.

This can be particularly problematic for employers in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who may also worry that they will not have the time and resources to devote to training someone up on the job. Another common worry among SMEs, which also came up in the survey, is that apprentices will leave the company as soon as they are qualified.

To help counter this, the government has introduced an incentive payment of up to £1,500 for small businesses who take on an apprentice aged between 16 and 24, and has introduced measures to reduce the bureaucracy around the recruitment of apprentices, and health and safety legislation.