Richard Harpin: This is how apprenticeships can work for all, says top York entrepreneur and founder of HomeServe

Richard Harpin wants greater support for apprenticeships.
Richard Harpin wants greater support for apprenticeships.
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THE official figures revealing the number of young people starting apprenticeships has just been published – and the Government’s own analysis showed that those taking up fresh apprenticeships in 2017/18 had dropped dramatically.

This is particularly relevant as National Apprenticeship Week draws to a close. This unhappy reading noted there were 119,000 fewer apprenticeships started across England, with 16,570 fewer across the Yorkshire and Humber region, including a drop of 280 in York and almost 1,000 fewer in Leeds.

While this was partly down to the introduction of a new funding scheme, navigating the complex apprenticeship system has proved to be a path many employers have chosen not to take.

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We’ve got to ask why. At a time when entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial intention is increasing, not decreasing, particularly among the 16-to-24 age group, it seems counter-intuitive that our young people are missing out on an opportunity to be taught a skill by working with an entrepreneur or business owner in an industry.

It is clear we’ve got to get on top of this trend before it begins to take hold. I set up the youth enterprise charity, The Enterprise Trust, because I wanted to see more young people achieve their entrepreneurial goals. I have publicly stated I want to have a hand in creating 25,000 more apprenticeship opportunities for enterprising young people.

While there is no doubting there is some fantastic work going on, with a British Retail Consortium report suggesting the majority of UK retailers are planning to increase the number of apprenticeships they offer, much more needs to happen before we can be assured the UK’s talent pool is being filled sustainably.

I want to see the Government doing more to help employers, many of them entrepreneurs themselves, to see the benefits that offering early stage training can bring – and importantly that it’s easy to digest and simple to implement. They are busy people. They’re spending all day, every day building businesses and creating employment. Anything that adds further work and complexity will be a bridge too far.

Research undertaken by The Enterprise Trust and JTL, the largest provider of apprenticeships in the building services engineering sector, highlighted a lack of clarity on the benefits and an over-complicated application process as the main barriers for employers.

I’d like to see the Government now doing more to raise awareness of the benefits of taking on apprentices among employers in the trades, as well as helping young people to recognise apprenticeships as a valid career route.

There is a lot of work to be done to increase the appetite to take on a young trainee, and create a world where young people view apprenticeships as a way to get to where they want to be.

Changes in attitude and culture tend to be led by Government. At £9,000 a year, a university degree isn’t the option it used to be for its own merit. I’d like to see more being done to make doing an apprenticeship more aspirational. Young people are often unaware that you can earn a lot of money as a plumber or electrician, perhaps more than if you study a degree at university.

Modern apprenticeships can offer education and a solid career path, often under the watchful eye of a mentor who’s got experience and knowledge that’s worth absorbing. Some apprenticeships can even be done in tandem with university degrees, like the scheme run at Sheffield Hallam University. Initiatives like this avoid the high cost of fees whilst also offering experience. They allow graduates to hit the ground running with a skill and, more importantly, a realistic grasp of the way businesses are run.

So while young people, or Generation Z, are already 20 per cent more likely than their parents to start a business or undertake some kind of entrepreneurial activity, the opportunities must be available.

Learning a skill at an early age can only lead to better outcomes among the 950,000 young people not in education, employment or training in this country. In my view, apprenticeships answer that growing and diverse need for gainful employment without having to accrue a debt. While it is not for everyone, I want to see some progress being made in increasing these numbers, and demonstrating the benefits it will have for the British economy.

Richard Harpin is the founder of emergency repair firm HomeServe, a FTSE 250 company and founder of The Enterprise Trust, a York-based youth enterprise charity.