FEATURE: Jason Holt champions new apprentice scheme


Apprenticemakers – a scheme designed to connect employers familiar with hiring an apprentice to those who aren’t – was launched in March and its positive impact is already being felt around the country. Here, apprenticeship ambassador and Holts group CEO, Jason Holt, explains why he’s championing the scheme and how he believes the networking initiative can change British industry.

In April 2014, Professional Jeweller spoke to Holts Group chief executive officer Jason Holt CBE about the government’s Craft Trailblazer initiative — a project that tasked businesses with creating a standardised blueprint of skills that every apprentice needs to learn; from the basics to specialised techniques for different industries.

Later, in August 2014, Holt announced that the initiative had succeeded in creating a new standard for craft apprenticeships, which will be implemented this year.

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But even with all this success, Holt’s determination to see apprentices elevated to a level on a par with our European neighbours didn’t falter. In March 2015 he announced the introduction of Apprenticemakers — a networking tool developed to help apprentice employers across the country make connections with those who are in the process of recruiting apprentices, perhaps for the first time.

The Apprenticemakers community aims to give SMEs the support they need, but from like-for-like businesses that have similar resources and constraints in place. The scheme is assisted by the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and led by the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative (SFEDI).

The inspiration for the scheme came from Jason Holt’s 2012 government review, the Holt Review, which focused on getting SMEs engaged in apprenticeships. One of the Review’s 15 recommendations honed in on the importance of communicating apprenticeship information to encourage businesses to make an informed and confident ‘next step’ into hiring. But instead of packaging this in a formulaic (and potentially quite dry) government website, Apprenticemakers is passionate about sharing first-hand experiences.

As Holt explains: “I said to myself, ‘Why don’t we get those people who’ve had a good experience of taking on apprentices to actually do more of the championing and promotion?’ I asked them if they would be prepared to be part of a network of business that would support apprenticeships and they said absolutely yes.”

With the concept of a network in place, Holt called together a focus group of employers around 12 months ago to get their feedback. The result was a peer-to-peer recommendation, citing the need for targeted mentoring between similar businesses where one passes answers and advice to the other. The second, and equally important, element of Apprenticemakers is the ‘badge of honour’ status that will hopefully come with being involved in the scheme.

“If you’ve become an apprenticeship champion, you can wear a badge of honour, literally, but also from a status point of view,” Holt explains. “The inspiration came from the Olympic Games and whether we could do what the Olympics did for the Games Makers. They became heroes and it was a real status thing, even though they were all volunteers who gave their time.”

Apprenticemakers was officially launched during National Apprenticeship Week in March and Holt has every reason to be positive. The next stage is encouraging businesses to sign-up to the site; both from a mentoring and advice-seeking perspective.

He explains: “A company or individual can register, add a profile and then a team of people will match them to another company [with similar or relevant experience]. You can ask all sorts of questions and create forums, so there could be a jewellery sector forum and chat room. It could be as easy as asking ‘What do I need to do to take on an apprentice?’ Or it could be as specific as trying to find an apprentice in a particular part of the country and knowing where to look.”

Sophie Hardwick, project lead for Apprenticemakers, adds: “Small businesses tend to trust the opinion and experience of other business owners more than any other source. Peer support from Apprenticemakers provides a very powerful source of encouragement and inspiration for those considering the process. Our ambition is to build a nationwide network of businesses that have knowledge and experience of the apprenticeship process and are willing to share this with others.”

Similarly, Holt believes Apprenticemakers is a viable alternative to agencies and job centres that can often seem complicated and confusing, especially for SMEs with limited resources and time to spare.

Holt remarks: “We’ve got the best part of four million SMEs in this country and we have about 10% of those engaged with apprentices. If we can get that to 20%, for instance, bearing in mind places like Germany are 40%, we would have one of the lowest rates of unemployment in Europe.

“There is all sorts of data that says those businesses that take on apprentices are growing the fastest, so it is all about encouraging businesses to take the leap from thinking about it to doing it,” he adds.

This idea of ‘taking the leap’ is the guiding ethos behind Apprenticemakers and now Holt is on a mission to make it known. He adds: “I think with all these things it is about getting enough people to know about it. Apprenticemakers needs a critical mass of employers who are already in the system to give good service to those who want to ask questions. Today, if a jeweller asked a question about taking on an apprentice there may not be as many jewellers [signed-up] we need for a good match to be made. We’re at the stage where lots of people are registering and we aim to populate to the point where there are tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, of businesses registered.”

As the government’s apprenticeship ambassador, Holt knows only too well the difficulties of making lasting changes to the employer and employee landscape. Fortunately, he believes a “cultural shift” is happening slowly with more employers and young people ready to take the apprenticeship route. He comments: “For generations and generations we’ve had governments say that ‘good’ looks like doing A-Levels and going to university, and we’re now seeing the repercussions of that.”

According to Holt, an improved culture of apprenticeships in the UK will “cultivate itself”, noting that too much forced action on businesses or young people could lead to vacant positions or not enough positions to go around.

Highlighting the benchmarks of Germany and Switzerland, he adds: “We want a system that doesn’t change over each parliament, but stays the same so that everyone can understand it. To be an apprentice is a respected status in society in Germany, particularly around engineering and design. People want to be an apprentice. Here it is still stigmatised. It is still seen by many unfortunately as being a second rate route and that has to change.”

This feature originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Professional Jeweller. Read it here.


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