Article • 6th February 2024

National Apprenticeship Week: What’s the ROI on an apprentice?

Now in its seventeenth year, National Apprenticeship Week is the annual celebration of the achievements and ambitions of apprentices and showcases the benefits of apprenticeships for businesses and the wider economy. Jayne Phenton shares her experience of an apprenticeship journey.

Back in 2017, I was PR and Comms Manager for a small organisation and recruiting for a digital marketing role that had become vacant. We interviewed half a dozen recent marketing graduates, but none of them had the spark and creativity I was looking for. I began the process of recruiting an apprentice and then faced a difficult decision between two very different candidates.

One was in his early twenties, had some experience in PR work, was part of a creative network and ran a website reviewing trainers of which he had hundreds, mainly sent to him by manufacturers for review. He was thoughtful and rather esoteric, ambitious, very streetwise, intelligent and digitally savvy. I couldn’t see any reason he would struggle to get a job, but he felt he needed the affirmation of a qualification.

The other candidate was just 17 years old. He had secured an impressive clutch of GCSEs, but had struggled with A levels and, with his confidence bruised, had abandoned academic study. He had a weekend job and was clearly bright, keen to learn and equipped with fantastic interpersonal skills.

Both had very different things to offer, so I began to think what the organisation and I could offer them. It seemed to me that the older of the candidates needed a bigger and more commercially driven environment to thrive. I didn’t think we could give him the stretch and the challenge he needed.

So, one Monday morning this extremely affable teenager took a seat at the desk next to mine and we embarked on a journey together. On his second day in the job, I handed him a placard and we made our way to Westminster Green to join a protest about the impact of the EBacc curriculum on arts subjects in schools. He posed amiably for photographs on Westminster Green with Strictly Come Dancing judge, Arlene Phillips, and the artist Bob and Roberta Smith, although he didn’t have a clue who either was.

He was, as they say, game for pretty much anything. I suggested he write a weekly blog to document his apprenticeship experience, but mainly as an exercise to improve his writing skills. Sometime later an essay he’d written was chosen for inclusion in a report on apprenticeships by the Learning and Work Institute and he sat on the discussion panel at the report’s launch at the House of Commons.

He published articles in TES and FE Week; delivered a keynote speech to an audience of 850 at the National Apprenticeship Awards, and made a friend of that year’s presenter, the architect and TV presenter George Clarke; he gave talks in schools as a Young Apprentice Ambassador.

Greater confidence came with the level three qualification and led to a degree apprenticeship in digital marketing at LSBU. Our boy went to university! The term ‘high-flier’ doesn’t do justice to the way this young man’s career has developed and continues to develop on a steep upward trajectory.

The organisation benefited from having a conscientious and committed employee who was great fun to work with to boot, but of course this is actually all about me. It would be presumptuous of me to say, ‘I’m proud’, but being a part of this story is certainly a privilege and without doubt the most rewarding experience I’ve had in over 20 years of going to work.

Since the establishment of the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education in 2017 and the government’s much heralded target of three million apprenticeships fell by the wayside, apprenticeship starts have steadily declined. In the 2022/23 academic year, there were 752,150 people participating in an apprenticeship in England, a fall or 3%, from the number of starts in the previous academic year.

I once heard the then director of HR for Siemens UK and Northern Europe, currently non-executive director at the Department for Education, Toby Peyton-Jones deliver a keynote, in which he said: ‘The ROI on your apprentice, is your apprentice.’

I would go further by saying you’re not just investing in securing a talent pipeline for your business or closing skills gaps in your industry or even giving an opportunity to a young person. The ROI on your apprentice is sharing the adventure, learning from them as much as they learn from you and enriching your work life. Go hire!