Small businesses find apprenticeships ‘costly but worthwhile’

Having left school at 15 to become an apprentice plumber, Charlie Mullins now sits as managing director of Pimlico Plumbers. He outlines his view of the apprenticeship system and how it should be used to tackle youth unemployment.

After leaving school at the age of 15, I took on a plumbing apprenticeship and that opportunity has given me everything I have today.

One of my proudest achievements has been growing Pimlico Plumbers to a size where we could start taking on our own apprentices and they now make up about 10 percent of our workforce.

I want to see other companies following this lead in using apprenticeships to grow the talent that will help them succeed in the future and to give opportunity to young people.

At the moment we have nearly one million young people stuck not in employment, education or training while at the same time firms are saying that they can’t get the skilled people that they need to grow.

This is an absurd situation which we desperately need to sort out. I believe that increasing the opportunity to learn on the job via apprenticeships is vital to sort out this problem.

Apprenticeships are a great investment for the future, but businesses are unlikely to get much return in the first couple of years

We need more apprenticeships to be available to young people and more of these to be high quality schemes giving young people skills which will set them up for life.

At the moment there are 11 applications for each apprenticeship place. This is a higher demand than for places at Oxford and Cambridge University. We want to see a situation where rather than having to turn so many people away; an apprenticeship is available for everyone who wants to take one up.

Boosting the supply of apprenticeships from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is important if we are going to deliver on this aim, but taking on an apprentice is very expensive for small companies.

A good quality three-year apprenticeship like the ones we run at Pimlico will cost around £45,000.

Apprenticeships are a great investment for the future, but businesses are unlikely to get much return in the first couple of years. This is a huge risk for smaller companies if the apprenticeship goes wrong.

This is why I believe that the government has a role to play. I believe that a national scheme to fund apprenticeships is needed to meet the shortfall in places.

A small grant of £1,500 to employers who are offering apprenticeships for the first time is available. That might go some way to encouraging companies to consider apprenticeships, but local schemes which have provided more generous support to SMEs have been most effective in boosting numbers.

Providing funding to help smaller firms to take on apprentices is a good idea, but the question is where is the money going to come from to fund it? My answer is that we need to switch funding from subsidising failure to investment in the future.

A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows that about £2.5bn is currently spent on out-of-work benefits for the under-25s each year and a further £6bn was spent on other benefits and tax credits for this group.

This is a huge amount of taxpayers’ money being invested into actually reducing the life chances of young people as time on benefits knocks back their future earning potential.

This money should be reinvested in supporting the expansion of apprenticeships or pre-apprenticeship training schemes.

As well as boosting the supply of apprenticeships we need to make sure that more young people understand the opportunities they offer.

A recent survey of apprentices from the Industry Apprenticeship Council showed that most found out information about apprenticeships on their own initiative. Very few got any information from teachers or careers advisers and nearly 20 per cent said that their school actively discouraged them from taking an apprenticeship up.

I think that a school actively trying to dissuade young people from taking up an apprenticeship is appalling. I believe that in the same way that university entry has been promoted to young people through, among other things, visits and summer schools, schools should be working to give young people a taste of what an apprenticeship could offer them.

This should be open to all their pupils, not just those that they have decided are ‘not up to going to uni’.

Delivering on this is not going to be easy, but given the extent of the challenge we face, the question should be can we afford not to take action?

Charlie Mullins, managing director, Pimlico Plumbers

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  1. Great article and Charlie is a true testiment to what you can achieve from starting off as an apprentice. I totally agreet that there needs to be more apprenticeship schemes available for young individuals and the government may need to increase funding for SMEs to help reduce the overall cost and risk.