Last week I had the pleasure of joining a workbench event; CIPD People Skills Programme. The evening discussion was part of two days CIPD spent in the Midlands engaging with local businesses, entrepreneurs, HR professionals and working communities with the support of Jericho Chambers and Impact Hub Birmingham.

To start the evening Peter Cheese, CEO of CIPD and Senior Public Affairs Officer, Paddy Smith shared some key findings of a recent CIPD report, People Skills: Building HR capability in small UK firms. The report followed a pilot scheme of “People Skills” in three UK locations which provided HR support to SMEs and found an improvement in people management capabilities as well as a potential link to increased productivity.

Following the report findings, we had a workbench discussion on the evolution of start-ups from often being founded by family and friends, to becoming an employer with a more formal structure (or not in some cases). It was a varied discussion, reflective of the different walks of life we were each from around the table and covered numerous ideas on the type of support we believed SMEs need for the future of work in Birmingham. From the basics of employment contracts to self-directed learning supported in the workplace, it was clear that in some shape or form, the role of HR will continue to be required in the future of work.

At the end of discussions, we were each able to put forward one ask of Peter Cheese; mine was to support small businesses in accessing apprenticeships.

At Natural HR, we’ve recently invested in taking on apprentices as part of our workforce planning to help ensure we have the right people and skills in place to grow with our business. Even for me, with experience in HR and recruiting, it’s been a challenging and steep learning curve to understand the world of apprenticeships.

Interestingly, a key aim of the “People Skills” pilot was to encourage the employment of young people, but it was noted that the SMEs involved were adverse to apprenticeships due to the perceived bureaucracy of schemes and a lack of resources to support in-experienced workers.

Indeed, it was nearly 18 months post-investment at Natural HR and following rapid growth that we sat down to take a look at where the skills we need to achieve our evolved business plan would come from, which led us to consider apprenticeships. 18 months ago, I can categorically say that apprenticeships wouldn’t have even made it to the bottom of my list when building a team for the same reasons mentioned by those in the pilot, some of which were also raised during our Board meetings in discussing our plans.

My concern is that for the average SME without HR support and an understanding of apprenticeships, the schemes will remain to have negative associations for small businesses, leaving only big businesses to continue taking advantage of growing their own future talent.

From my involvement with a few apprenticeship training providers over recent months, I’d liken the difficult times to dealing with a bad recruitment agency (yes, a bad one, not what all recruitment agencies are!) Apprenticeship training providers receive their government funds for each apprentice they place, so it would be great to see independent advice on apprenticeships coming from our profession.

There is a 2017 guide for employers available; Apprenticeships That Work but it was often the little questions I just wanted to run by someone, probably similar to the types of questions which were raised by the SMEs in the “People Skills” pilot but in relation to apprenticeships. It was these questions and sound checking that I ended up putting through our employment solicitors for a second opinion – a cost barrier which could put off many SMEs.

In terms of what I think would be required to make apprenticeships viable for SMEs, then adding to the already mentioned independent advice on running a scheme, would be legal support for the apprenticeship agreement, someone to bounce the small questions off and case studies detailing the journey of other SMEs running apprenticeship scheme – perhaps this last one is something I can document to share over the course of the next year…so watch this space.

Reflecting on the evening itself, I was impressed to see CIPD and Peter Cheese working on the ground to spend time talking with small businesses and genuinely listening to what was being said! Going forward, I hope discussions continue with entrepreneurial communities across the UK as there’s certainly more to be learnt from other SMEs. Also, I fully support CIPD in calling on the government to invest in HR support services for SMEs to increase productivity in our economy.

Lastly, thank you Impact Hub Birmingham for hosting the event (blog image credit to @ImmyKaur).

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Sarah Dowzell, Assoc CIPD
COO & Co-founder at Natural HR
Sarah first became an employer in the cleaning industry at the age of 21. She holds a First Class Honours Degree in Business Studies and Associate CIPD membership. Sarah is passionate about HR, Entrepreneurship and encouraging other women in business.