We spoke to Sarah O'Laoi, our Deputy Director (Business Support Services), to find out more about her experience of working with apprentices and discover some of the advantages for her team and for the University as a whole.

Why did you choose to recruit apprentices?

We have a team of finance employees from entry level all the way up to the Head of Finance. In the past we have tried a variety of different ways to cover the entry level roles, but it has never seemed to be the right fit. We had admin staff that were not focused on developing themselves within finance, or finance staff that were over-qualified for some of the lower-level tasks. 

I came from an accounting practice, where apprentices and training contracts are the norm. It seemed natural to look to replicate this model within our finance team.

What are the advantages of an apprentice?

Apprentices usually come with little or no knowledge or background in the field. Therefore, they come as a blank canvas. They are less likely to have bad habits that may have been picked up from working in a similar role elsewhere and are often keen to learn and set out on a new career path.

Off-the-job training can take many forms, but in this case the apprentices spent one day a week in the classroom learning. There are many positives of this aspect of apprenticeships.  Firstly, it means that they are focussed and enthusiastic about their learning and how it can be applied to the work, and secondly, they bring up to the minute knowledge of best practice and theory in their field into the office. Some of our other employees in the team may have studied many years ago and so learn from the apprentices too.

What have you found the disadvantages to be?

Many of our apprentices have never worked in an office environment before and this may be their first paid job. You need to remember that in this situation you may not only need to teach them the work, but also help them to develop basic employability and office skills.  They are often fast learners though.

As with anyone starting a completely new role, some find that they are not suited to it and either struggle to pass the exams or develop the necessary experience or some just decide it really is not for them. Regular communication with the training provider and the apprentice themselves should identify any issues early on, so they can be discussed and, hopefully, easy solutions found.  Early intervention and support are always helpful.

Are all apprentices 16-18 school leavers?

Absolutely not. We have always been careful not to stipulate an age or target our advertising towards school leavers. An apprentice can be of any age or background. It could be someone wanting to change career later in life or even return to the workforce following a period of unemployment. 

So where do I start?

Firstly, you should research the apprenticeship standard that would be the best for your role.  You can find these on the Institute for Apprenticeships website.

You should then contact the Employee Apprenticeships Manager in People & Culture who can help you to find a suitable training provider of the apprenticeship. If the apprentice is going to be in the classroom once a week, it can be useful for it be local. Colchester Institute offer a range of apprenticeships, but for more specialist areas, it is possible that a more specialist provider may be a better option.  Different providers and different standards mean different approaches to the course delivery. Some may offer remote/online learning options which may work better for the business and the individual.

Once a suitable training provider has been identified, arrange to meet with them to discuss your needs. They can assist in getting a job description prepared (including checking that the role is well suited to the requirements of the apprenticeship standard) and send you all the necessary paperwork. They may ask you to demonstrate how you will support the apprentice and fulfil the requirements of the standard. Don’t be put off if you don’t think you can provide experience in every single aspect, but you should be able to do the majority.

The job can normally be advertised on the training provider’s website (and they can advertise it for free on the National Apprenticeship Service vacancies), but it is useful to also have it added to the University jobs page and think about where else you might want to get the message out.   

Once you have a list of applicants, it’s time to interview them. Remember that some of the applicants may be school leavers, with little or no work experience. The interview questions and tasks should be tailored for this. We have found that a shorter informal meeting works best and then we would usually interview a few from that selection.  We focus on looking for someone who is passionate and enthusiastic about the subject area.

Once you have decided to appoint them, liaise with the training provider and Employee Apprenticeships Manager to get them registered and complete an Onbase appointment form, so People and Culture can get them set up as an employee.

What do you pay them?

The current minimum rate for a new apprentice is £4.81 per hour, which rises to the national minimum wage for their age from the second year onwards. However, we have found that paying a little extra can give you a better calibre of candidate, so the apprentice rates at the University are higher than that. Work is currently underway to consider a new university approach to paying new apprentices – one that looks to recognise and take account of the grade of the role they are working towards rather than a simple single pay point.

Apprentices are paid for a full week and will be spending the equivalent of a minimum of six hours per week on off-the-job training. We also typically support the apprentices by paying any other fees that arise directly linked with their studies, such as books, exam fees and membership fees. This support will depend on the role and should be agreed at the outset.