Amid gloomy national news about apprenticeship starts, especially at level 2, Norfolk is bucking the trend. Last year, starts across the county increased by 18 per cent.
Despite a slight decline in the overall number of starts in the first three months of 2022/23 – three interesting stats remain: the increase in our apprenticeship starts for those aged 16 to 18 continued, as did the increase in those starting level 2 apprenticeships, and we’ve seen the best figures in 3 years on newly recruited apprentices (those employed less than 3 months).
Promoting the benefits
This is the result of a lot of hard work. Six local providers hold the ‘top spots’ in the leader board for the numbers of apprentices they’ve started so far this year. And while the most recent Q1 numbers had just 13 fewer apprenticeship starts than the same period in the previous year (2021/22), Norfolk SMEs started almost 80 more apprenticeships than they did in the pre-pandemic Q1 of 2019/20.
Many businesses benefited from the post-pandemic national incentives available last year. However, primary and secondary research conducted by Apprenticeships Norfolk – a hub run by Norfolk County Council providing impartial guidance for businesses and individuals – highlighted the practical and financial support particularly needed to help more SMES and apprentices access programmes.
After securing almost £2m of external funding, Apprenticeships Norfolk have been able to deliver an exciting range of initiatives. An ongoing #MadeInNorfolk TV marketing campaign has helped to inspire SMEs, raising awareness of apprenticeships with unscripted messages from real, local SMEs that had taken on an apprentice about the benefits it had brought them. A dedicated website explains the range of grants, bursaries and support on offer.
The combination of promotional activity and carefully planned interventions (additional financial and practical support) may be the catalyst for growth rates in Norfolk which exceed national figures. Indeed, evaluations indicate that the financial support made a significant difference with local business owners.
Kickstarting the provision
Meanwhile, a pilot scheme to progress Kickstarters onto apprenticeships provided an innovative combination of upfront financial incentive, a 6-month wage contribution (based on NMW at 37 hours a week), up to five hours of individualised wrap-around practical support (including an interactive employer ‘induction’ session) and a £300 training budget for the employers/apprentices to enhance their skills.
Employers developed their mentoring skills and apprentices accessed added-value training designed to support them to engage in the apprenticeship more effectively; with the aim to increase the likelihood of completion and achievement of the apprenticeship.
Evaluation feedback indicated that the 42 participating businesses would have been unable to offer a full-time apprenticeship without the scheme, and that the apprenticeships may not have led to so many job offers.
By the end of the pilot, seven apprentices had withdrawn, three of them citing family moving out of county as the cause. Early indications suggest a retention rate of 83 per cent, far exceeding national figures.
Learning the lessons
We have drawn five key conclusions from our efforts.
First, success is a collective partnership effort across the system. It requires input and commitment from all stakeholders, including providers, employers and individuals with supplementary brokerage of financial and practical support.
Next, it’s crucial to keep raising awareness of apprenticeships so that SMEs really understand the benefits and the impact an apprentice can have on their business. Many simply do not.
But success hinges on a balance of financial and practical support. This combination of approaches was verified by the independent evaluation of our pilot scheme. Its key findings indicate that financial stimulus was critical to supporting the viability of starting the apprenticeship for the businesses, and that individualised, wrap-around support was equally important to see it through to completion.
SMEs are often time-poor and also value free, impartial and timely information, advice and administration prompts. Apprenticeship Hubs are well-placed to deliver this.
Finally, SMEs also benefit from learning how to mentor apprentices and better manage their apprenticeship programmes. Doing so supports retention and offers a higher return on investment for the apprentice, the business and the economy.
The problems with apprenticeships are national, but as Norfolk is showing, some of the most effective solutions can be found locally.