Jan Roberts has a wealth of experience in finding and managing apprentices, and we explore the pros and cons of employing them in her podcast Why you should consider an apprentice


Neil Foley:                           Well, good morning, everybody. It’s Neil Foley here again from the Business Growth Club. Really fortunate today to have Jan Roberts with us from Inspire Norfolk who’s an expert in all things with apprentices. How are you today then, Jan?

Jan Roberts:                       Very well, thank you. Thanks for inviting me here. I’m really pleased to be talking about apprenticeships.

Neil Foley:                           Oh, that’s excellent. Well, thank you. What we would hope is, once you listen to the podcast, that you understand more about where what the world of apprentices actually is, how it might fit for your business, and the next steps, if you like, if you were interested in finding out more. That’s what we’ll hope to explain to you.

Jan, let’s kick off with a very broad question. Why would somebody take on an apprentice?

Jan Roberts:                       I think there’s a lot of reasons, really, if we kind of consider the business. If you are looking to grow your business but might not be in a position where you could employ from a financial perspective a full-time member of staff, an apprenticeship is really a good place to go. There is a financial investment in it, but it also means that you can grow and develop a young person in the way that your business is developing. For example, lots of businesses say to me, “I want another me.” The only way that they’re going to do that is by growing, and developing, and nurturing someone into that kind of mould. Apprenticeships are a really good opportunity to do that.

It also gives a young person a great start in the world of work and having that nurturing environment for them is a very good thing. It also offers young people an alternative to, say, university. They won’t end up with the huge-weight of debt or damage to their liver. They won’t end up with coming out with one set qualifications and then having to find work experience that kind of matches that. Apprenticeships can be very, very organic for them. They might start doing a business admin and then move on to a finance qualification. They might start with a business admin and go into a leadership supervision management direction.

Neil Foley:                           Do you mean some of them don’t know when they’re first starting what they want necessarily?

Jan Roberts:                       Did you? Do you know what you want to do now?

Neil Foley:                           No.

Jan Roberts:                       No.

Neil Foley:                           No. When you’re really young, I suppose-

Jan Roberts:                       Yes. I always envy those people that have a real vocation that want to be a policeman, want to be a whatever. Young people have so much choice now, so to go into the world of work, it could be that they go into business, as I say, with a very broad kind of business admin qualification and then, say, if they were working in accountants or a law firm or a marketing company, they might stay as sort of an office manager-type role, or they may go into finance, digital marketing, an AAT course, so they can actually specialise after that. It just gives them a little bit of a leeway or it gives them a little bit of opportunity to kind of have a year to find their feet and they decide.

Neil Foley:                           Is it a year then? Is that what typically an apprenticeship is?

Jan Roberts:                       An apprenticeship has to be legally a year and a day, so the minimum is a year and a day. Dependent upon the needs of the business, dependent upon what might happen during that time, sort of a general office type apprenticeship could be anything from a year to 18 months. The training providers try to be as supportive as possible with that. Obviously if you’re looking at any of the trades or other kind of specialised apprenticeships, they could be longer.

Neil Foley:                           Historically, I always thought that apprenticeship people served … when I first came to Norwich, there were people doing typesetting apprenticeships that might have been six or seven years.

Jan Roberts:                       Yes.

Neil Foley:                           Now it’s a year and a day minimum, but are some of them longer than that?

Jan Roberts:                       Some of them are. As I say, some of the trades are a minimum of 18 months to two years. They’re all very specific.

Neil Foley:                           The bit that I get a bit confused with on the apprenticeship side is the apprentice going to be with me five days a week, or is it a day release where they go to college or whatever?

Jan Roberts:                       Again, that varies with the course.

Neil Foley:                           Does it?

Jan Roberts:                       With something like business admin and customer service, all delivered in the workplace. That employee is with you for a minimum of 30 hours a week. Anything over and above that it’s fine. All of their assessment and training is delivered in the workplace.

Neil Foley:                           By me?

Jan Roberts:                       No. You will deliver some on-the-job training as you would with any other employee, but they will have an assessor assigned to them who will come in on a regular basis, but they’ll also have an e-portfolio. They’ll upload tasks online. It may be some witness statements, some observations. That said, they are changing from frameworks to standards. It gets a big complicated. If anybody wants any specific information, give me a call.

Neil Foley:                           I guess from what you said, this is a moveable feast as well. Some bits haven’t been determined as yet.

Jan Roberts:                       Yes, yes, yes. There have been some big changes from the first of May. I think we’re all kind of getting to grips with those. I think if anybody wants to know specifics at the moment, either give myself a call or one of the training providers or the skills funding agency.

Neil Foley:                           I guess that’s where I get confused. There seem to be so many people in the arena, whereas from an employer’s viewpoint, you think, “Where do you go?” Do you go to people like you to start with to, say, help me select an apprentice and the appropriate training?

Jan Roberts:                       We’re not a training provider. We are essentially a recruitment agency. We support a business to do the recruitment side of it. What we can do that maybe the training providers won’t do is be a little bit more hands on. It all came about when I had one particular tradesman who had never had an interview in his life. I said to him, “Oh, and that’s when you interview the people.” I could see the look of terror on his face. We basically did all of the shortlisting for him. We then wrote the questions for the interview, attended the interview with him, gave the feedback to the young people so that he didn’t have to do any of those, “Thanks, but no thanks,” calls. Some training providers will do that, others don’t.

If you need that extra bit of support, my type of service is where you might want to start. If you’re set up, you’re happy to do interviewing, you’re happy to make all your calls, texts, emails to young people, then probably a training provider is fine. We will also be there through the first three months of the probation, if anyone has any queries.

Neil Foley:                           There is a probationary period, is there, on the apprenticeship route?

Jan Roberts:                       Yes. Like any other employee, you should always put in a probationary period. We always say three months, but like any HR person will tell you, if they’re not achieving at any time-

Neil Foley:                           Then you just extend it.

Jan Roberts:                       You can extend it, yes. Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           When you said there’s an assessor who comes in, is that like an NVQ?

Jan Roberts:                       Yes.

Neil Foley:                           Is it an NVQ level 2 or whatever?

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah, absolutely. The assessor will mark them against criteria. The difference with the frameworks and the standards is that the frameworks were assessed throughout. The standards, I believe now, are going to be assessed towards the end, so in a very different way. Some training providers have moved to them immediately. Others are sort of working through and will be changing over the course of the next 6 to 12 months.

Neil Foley:                           Is there a conflict in the sense that presumably the training providers want to get them through and passed so that the assessments are a little bit lackadaisical, or a bit mickey-mouse, or do they take it seriously?

Jan Roberts:                       I think that comes down to the integrity of the sort of people working there really.

Neil Foley:                           Does it? The assessor, do you mean?

Jan Roberts:                       Well, a little bit of both, probably. There are always going to be unscrupulous providers. I think if you look past their results, their statistics, which you can see online-

Neil Foley:                           Oh can you? Okay.

Jan Roberts:                       You can make a judgement  call.

Neil Foley:                           Will you see some of the stats, very high pass marks?

Jan Roberts:                       Yes. I think Norfolk is a village, so word of mouth recommendation is always a good one. If you speak to another business that’s had an apprentice before, which training provider they used, some training providers might be better at delivering certain courses, and some work better for bigger, smaller businesses. I think that’s very much down to the individual company and a bit of research.

Neil Foley:                           Bit of research.

Jan Roberts:                       Yes. Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           Age wise for the apprentice, because what surprised me, there’s a member of the Business Growth Club who took an apprentice on probably a couple years ago now, and he was early 20s. I don’t know why I had it in my mind that they were sort of 16 to 18 year old.

Jan Roberts:                       No. Up until the 1st of May, 16 to 24 was funded. Now anyone can do an apprenticeship. You or I could start one. Also, if you have done a university degree, that used to preclude. Now as long as it’s a different form of training, then you are able to do an apprenticeship. We then get into sort of the minutia of all of the funding.

Neil Foley:                           Yes, which is all moving.

Jan Roberts:                       Again, probably best to have a little chat with somebody about all of that.

Neil Foley:                           Is the bit that’s changing the amount that you have to pay the apprentice, or that stays-

Jan Roberts:                       No, at the moment, that’s still 3 pounds 50 an hour

Neil Foley:                           Regardless of age?

Jan Roberts:                       In their first year. Then that always goes up sort of around about the 1st of October. That bit’s staying, but it’s the funding that used to be what was called the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers. That has changed. There’s only going to be a grant available for 16 to 18 year olds. It’s paid in two lots, whereas they used to get it all in one hit after the young person had been in work for 13 weeks.

Neil Foley:                           Right, okay.

Jan Roberts:                       It’s much more about funding the younger apprentices rather than anyone 19 plus at the moment. That’s the focus.

Neil Foley:                           Okay. In your experience, are most employers paying the minimum? Presumably you can pay more or have commission schemes or enhancements.

Jan Roberts:                       Again, yes, it’s down to the individuals. I sort of don’t put any focus on it. It’s their company. They know.

Neil Foley:                           Down to them. Do you know what they do?

Jan Roberts:                       Most companies start off at the minimum. They might use that sort of enhancement, a bit of a carrot. I always encourage, obviously because of the transport issues here, if somebody needs to drive to get to a location, then employers might need to consider either giving some benefits in terms of mileage or something to support. If it’s a fair distance and their travel, again, impacts, then there might be some support for that. I think it’s best to use as a bit of a goal for them, but yes, I think 3 pounds 50 throughout an entire apprenticeship might be a little tricky for some, especially where you’re employing somebody that might be living independently.

Neil Foley:                           Yes, that’s it. If they’re living at home, I guess, and you’re relatively young, then-

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah, if you’re a 16 year old living at home and earning 3 pounds 50 an hour-

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, it’s spending money anyways.

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah, it’s not bad. You wouldn’t get that if you went to college. Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           There must be a big difference then between apprentices in the city areas and then in the rural areas. The rural ones presumably are the more problematic because of transport, because public transport is so pretty lousy, isn’t it?

Jan Roberts:                       Yes, it is tricky. We found that with working hours. We’ve got a position that we’re advertising at the moment, and their ideal hours are 7:30 to 4:30, but the bus doesn’t get in until 8.

Neil Foley:                           Right.

Jan Roberts:                       We can’t say, “We must have a driver,” but they’re going to have to be flexible until if the right person doesn’t drive, then they need to be flexible until such time as they do, or they just need to be flexible with those hours.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, just accept that it’s going to change.

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah, I think that’s kind of the nature of the beast working and living in Norfolk, is it not?

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, I think it is rural, isn’t it?

Jan Roberts:                       I think one of the other difficulties, if we’ve got an employer that’s a little bit out of the city, on a bus route, and they forget that if that young person lives out the other side of the city, that they need to get one bus in and then one bus out.

Neil Foley:                           Yes, that’s quite a long journey, isn’t it?

Jan Roberts:                       That can end up being quite a fair journey.

Neil Foley:                           Yes. In terms of interviewing young people, if you’re doing that and you’re saying that’s a service that you offer, that’s quite a challenge, isn’t it? A lot of the young people won’t be over confident, will they?

Jan Roberts:                       No.

Neil Foley:                           This is a big generalisation, but if you’re confident, then you’re thinking, “I want to be doctor or a dentist or an accountant.” You go to university. These are people who are finding their way, aren’t they? That must be a real challenge.

Jan Roberts:                       Some of them. Sometimes it’s more challenging to stop the employers talking about themselves.

Neil Foley:                           Really?

Jan Roberts:                       Yes.

Neil Foley:                           Most of the employers are bad as or worse?

Jan Roberts:                       It’s interesting. They’ll talk a lot, and then they’ll let the young person walk out of the interview and say, “Oh, I liked them.” I ask how they know they liked them, because they didn’t ask any questions. That’s why I’m there so we can steer them, or if all else fails, stop them and actually ask the questions myself.

Neil Foley:                           Really?

Jan Roberts:                       I think young people, yeah, it can be quite nerve-wracking. It is probably one of the first times that they’ve had interviews. We do a little bit of coaching with them. We do another aspect of the service, which is support where we will work with a young person specifically to get them into work. When I’m supporting the business, the business is my main focus. I don’t want to coach the young person so they perform on the day, and then actually when they get there to do the job, they haven’t got the wherewithal. We do support them, and we do give them an indication of the kind of questions. If they’re asked where they want to be in five years, they don’t say married with babies. It’s got to be career related or something. We do give a bit of coaching, and yet they’ve often not got huge amounts of experience to draw on. Those questions that we might answer in an interview-

Neil Foley:                           They would struggle with, wouldn’t they?

Jan Roberts:                       They would struggle, and so need to look for examples within day-to-day life or the football team that they belong to or the guides or an example of something where they worked in a team at school. It’s that kind of thing, and making them think about those things beforehand.

Neil Foley:                           Yes. Is there … One of the criticisms that you’ll hear, and not just about apprentices, but recruiting young people generally is that they’re never going to be here for very long. I trained them up, and get them experienced, and love them, and then lo and behold, they disappear. Now of course they’ve got the absolute right to do that. That’s what life is, isn’t it? What do you say to an employer who’s worried about that or maybe had their fingers burnt and said, “I tried it once?”

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah, I think there’s a lot of employers that do the, “Oh, I tried it once. Oh apprentices,” the sweeping statements. I think if you build that relationship with a young person that they’re less likely to. The ones that really work out are where there’s a bit of give and take. The interview right from the start, the interview is a conversation. The employer wants to be interviewed as much as they’re interviewing the young person. It can happen with any kind of member of staff that they go off. I think some of the best companies I’ve worked with are where they say, “Oh yes, so-and-so’s gone off travelling for a year, but we’ve told them to come back and see us when they get back.” The young people, they’re going to decide to go the other side of the world and explore a little bit. I don’t really think there’s anything that we can say that will stop that.

I think that investing in a young person, it’s a learning curve for the employer as well as for the young person. There’s a steady stream, so yes, they might have to start back at the beginning again, but the employer’s wiser, in terms of employing a young person. I think it’s just the nature of the beast. They kind of have to accept it, really.

Neil Foley:                           Yes, you don’t own anybody, do you, at the end of the day?

Jan Roberts:                       No, and it could happen with a sort of full-time older person who’s established, and then suddenly life takes a turn, and they win the lottery.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, things happen, don’t they?

Jan Roberts:                       They fly off, yeah.

Neil Foley:                           One of the other criticisms, nothing to do with apprentices, but it’s about employing people, is that by the time I’ve explained it to somebody, I could have done it myself. You must have heard that a few times.

Jan Roberts:                       I think we’ve all done it, haven’t we?

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, yeah.

Jan Roberts:                       Yes, but you explain it a few times, and yes, you’ve got to take some time out of your day to do that, but eventually in time with experience and repeating that activity, the young person will be able to manage. Yes, I think part of our role is to manage the expectations of the employer and the young person in those very early days. Part of the grant was there to sort of support employers for the time when a young person wasn’t hugely beneficial to the business. I think employers have to realise that they are not going to hit the ground running day one. The number of times I have employers that say, “Oh, I want them experienced in this, experienced in that,” it’s like, “But you’re paying 3 pounds 50 an hour and they’re straight out of school.” Yes, there are young people that come along, and they’ve got all the experience that they’re after, but generally speaking, they need to learn on the job.

Neil Foley:                           I guess that’s true in terms of social media or some of the IT side that they might be very skilled, but they’re still never been employees, have they?

Jan Roberts:                       They’re very skilled at doing that to their friends. They still need some guidance and support, in terms of doing it for business. Yes, they haven’t been employed. I think an employer said, “We finish at 4, and the young man is packed up by quarter to 4.” If you go into a school-

Neil Foley:                           That’s exactly what happens, isn’t it?

Jan Roberts:                       Before the bell goes, they’re all there ready waiting for the bell. It’s not what we do in the workplace. I said to the employer, “Have you told them?” “Well, no.” It’s just very obvious this is very different to being in school. You need to tell them. Once told, he was fine.

Neil Foley:                           They’re all right.

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           Is that true with a lot of employers that the reality is, because we’re often talking about small employers, aren’t we, at the end of the day?

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           Actually, they’re just not that good at managing staff, are they? In terms of appraisers or for money rather than it’s once a year rather than a structure and a process in place to get the best out of people, they just don’t do it, do they?

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah, it’s one of my biggest bugbears.

Neil Foley:                           Really?

Jan Roberts:                       I think that people find themselves in business in a supervisory position not having had any training. They just kind of arrive there. Not all businesses will support them in giving them training. Quite often if we have an apprentice who, in that probation period, is struggling, it’s not always that the apprentice isn’t doing what they should be doing. It’s that the employer isn’t managing them. It really is about managing. Some of the work we do in that period isn’t anything with the apprentice. It’s about trying to kind of plant seeds for the employer, or the manager, or supervisor, or whatever, to actually do that role, perform that role. Quite a lot of times where an apprentice will go from a business admin, we do suggest that if they are going to be then maybe looking after the next apprentice in, maybe a supervision leadership and supervision course would be appropriate.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, so there are lots of different courses like that around.

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           There’s quite a choice.

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah, and I think if we can support people in learning to manage, it’s going to be a much better working environment.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, it’d be better all around, wouldn’t it?

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           I know in terms of talking to a lot of micro-businesses, they say they want support, and they need help, and they need two pairs of hands, they need everything they can, but the reality is when you say, “What do you want done then?” I don’t think they really know.

Jan Roberts:                       No, no.

Neil Foley:                           That’s quite difficult for them then. You’ve got a young person who’s in a new environment and not quite sure what to do. You’ve got an employer thinking, “I don’t know why I’ve agreed to this, and actually I’m having do it myself anyway.”

Jan Roberts:                       Exactly.

Neil Foley:                           All the ingredients are there for a not particularly good recipe.

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah, and I think that’s why that whole recruitment, the looking at what the job role is and where they will get the evidence for their qualification right at the very start, that’s why that bit’s so important, because you can reach a place in your business where you’re busy. Been there, done it, and think, “Oh, I need someone,” but actually the reality of having somebody in is that you almost have to take a step back from the business to support their development in initially. Then I’m sure it will fly. Often you kind of take that step back and realise that we didn’t need that task done. If you kind of fine tune the way you’re working, you could probably do it a bit better.

Neil Foley:                           Or maybe you should just actually do it, rather with … I can imagine with people like hairdressing, which is obviously very popular, there’s a very structured route in, isn’t it?

Jan Roberts:                       Yes, yeah.

Neil Foley:                           You’re the Saturday person, and you sweep up and observe, and then you wash and gradually learn. For a lot of the business admin, which is I guess one of the most popular categories, it’s quite tricky, isn’t it?

Jan Roberts:                       It is.

Neil Foley:                           It means different things to different people, doesn’t it?

Jan Roberts:                       Yes. The role can vary so much. It can be sort of business admin based in finance, based in marketing, based in … Yes, it is about that initial meeting where you look at the job role, and there’s a skill scan that we sort of work through to just ensure that the young person will get the required learning in the role.

Neil Foley:                           Yes. Then they’ve got more chance of staying, becoming valuable, and learning from each other really.

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah, definitely.

Neil Foley:                           Is it slave labour at times?

Jan Roberts:                       It’s funny. There’s going to be an element of make the tea, say hello to first point of contact with a customer, if the post needs taking out that they’ll do it. It’s cheaper for the apprentice to do it for the managing director to do it, so it’s inevitable that that’s going to happen. I think sometimes I have to kind of have that discussion with an apprentice to say that that’s going to happen, because they kind of think it’s outside of their job role. If it’s not written down as a specific, then possibly, but there’s always that all-encompassing, “Whatever other duties at this level.” That’s about being aware of that in the world of work.

We do have quite a lot of families who are sort of second, third generation unemployed. Maybe if other family members haven’t worked, they might not be getting the positive messages from home, possible. It’s just a period of adjustment. I think as long as it’s said in a nice way, they’re not being ordered to make the tea, then yes. Maybe sometimes in a workplace everyone goes and makes the tea. I don’t think so, because you are learning the whole time. Yes, they’re not getting paid a huge amount, but they are learning. They are having the benefit of that employer’s experience. As long as it’s kept in a structured format and they’re meeting their learning criteria, no, I don’t think it is slave labour. There’s a job or potential job at the end of it.

Neil Foley:                           Yes, I was going to say what sort of success rates do apprentices have?

Jan Roberts:                       They vary across the training providers. We always aim to work with employers who want to keep that person on at the end of it. Obviously they go from their sort of 3 pounds 50 or whatever they’re on to a higher salary, so they have to be seen to be of benefit at that point. I say to young people it’s a year to prove your worth. Make that company miss you when you’re on holiday. Make that company wish you were there when it was after hours, after your hours are finished. It can be down to them to kind of make that employer want to keep them on.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah. The employer, that sort of answers the slave labour and the issue of being, “I want this work done and the role fulfilled. If this young person turns out to be the right one, then that’s fabulous. That’s what we want.”

Jan Roberts:                       Absolutely. That does happen in so many cases, and quite often they will then look at further training for that young person, which that’s the ideal.

Neil Foley:                           You’re seeing more professional services start to look at apprentices and saying, “Actually, don’t go to university,” the likes of some of the bigger accountancy practises saying, “We’ll take the right attributes for a young person and train them.”

Jan Roberts:                       The very first young person I recruited has just done his final accountancy course.

Neil Foley:                           Really?

Jan Roberts:                       He started on a business admin, and then did AAT all the way through. Yeah, perfect. He hasn’t been to uni, doesn’t have the debt.

Neil Foley:                           No, no

Jan Roberts:                       Lived at home with mom and dad and earning, and probably in the business that he was in has seen some things that you would never see if you went to uni and sort of straight from there into a business.

Neil Foley:                           And his liver is healthy.

Jan Roberts:                       His liver is fine.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, he wins the whole race, doesn’t he?

Jan Roberts:                       Absolutely.

Neil Foley:                           The final thing I was going to ask you, Jan, is one I’ve asked a few people. If you could put your arm around your shoulder as an 18 year old again, what would you say to yourself knowing now a bit more about life and experience?

Jan Roberts:                       I went to ballet school and was a professional ballet dancer.

Neil Foley:                           Did you really? You were a professional ballet dancer?

Jan Roberts:                       Oh goodness, yes. Yes. What would I have said then? You see, I had a vocation and followed my dream. To be fair, I probably would have been a little wiser about the choices that I made with my career after I finished dancing. I don’t think I would have changed anything at that point, because I think if you have one of those, it was a dream that nothing was going to stop me. I think at that point I wouldn’t have changed anything. I think later when I stopped dancing, I probably would have gone to university or retrained properly then, whereas left that until my early 30s when my son was small to go to uni and kind of focus on a career. I sort of floated around in the interim years.

Neil Foley:                           You’d have been a bit more decisive.

Jan Roberts:                       Yes.

Neil Foley:                           What age were you when you stopped ballet dancing?

Jan Roberts:                       24, 23, 24.

Neil Foley:                           Okay, so then you drifted. Drifted is too strong a word, but yeah.

Jan Roberts:                       I drifted for a little bit. Yes, yes. Drifted to some amazing places and worked for some of the big retail companies in London. Ended up with the BBC World Service. I drifted in quite nice circles, and I probably had some really good experiences, but I think if I would have been a bit more structured about my approach then, but I think it would be a sad world if at 18 we couldn’t follow our dreams.

Neil Foley:                           No, absolutely. You were lucky to have one, weren’t you, as you’d said earlier?

Jan Roberts:                       Yes. Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           If you got a vocation and a calling and that’s what you want to be, it’s easy, in a way, isn’t it?

Jan Roberts:                       Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           Well, that’s been fabulous. Thank you very much for your time, Jan.

Jan Roberts:                       Thank you, thank you. A pleasure.

Neil Foley:                           It’s been delightful to speak to you. I hope that helps everybody. What I will do at the bottom of the podcast is we’ll have a link to Jan’s website address, so any questions on apprentices, please just drop her a line. I’m sure she’ll be delighted to help. Until next time, thanks very much.