Why apprenticeships are key to filling the skills gap and powering growth for UK businesses

Government must do more to raise awareness of benefits of in-house training, say the owners of Campbell West
Steven Campbell and Daniel West
Bracknell MP James Sunderland learns new skills under the guidance of Campbell West owners Steven Campbell and Daniel West. Photo by Thousand Word Media(1)(2)
Bracknell MP James Sunderland learns new skills under the guidance of Campbell West owners Steven Campbell and Daniel West. Photo by Thousand Word Media

The importance of apprenticeships to business leaders has been on the political agenda in the UK as the rival parties jostle for position ahead of the General Election on July 4.

That’s because Rishi Sunak has committed himself to create 100,000 more a year by closing down the ‘worst-performing’ so called ‘rip-off degrees’ at universities because of high drop-out rates and "poor" job prospects.

As a former apprentices plumber who now own their own business we welcome the pledge to create more apprenticeships because they are crucial to up-and-coming companies.

Seeing things from both sides of the fence, we’ve always felt that much more needs to be done by our Government to ensure they take steps to fill a worrying skills gap.

We will return to what we think the next Government needs to do later but to put things into context for us the apprenticeship programme remains extremely close to our hearts.

We started off as apprentice plumbers so we will always be indebted to our former mentors for helping us get a foot on the career ladder.

But we also know that training apprentices is vital to the future growth and prosperity of mechanical and electrical engineering companies like ours because the only way we will flourish is by training the next generation of tradespeople.

Artificial Intelligence will have a huge impact on the way people see the jobs of the future. There are many jobs that will become obsolete but a manual workforce will still very much be a requirement.

We are both firmly committed to training young people through the apprenticeship system because we know it works from personal experience.

Dan and I did well at school, academically. We both flew through our GCSEs with As and Bs and as a result, found ourselves being directed towards a route to university.

We both resisted that push towards higher education. It was uncanny that we made similar decisions, albeit a year apart and at different schools and then met up through our apprenticeships, clicked and always seemed to be on the same wavelength.

But had it not been for apprenticeships, we’d have gone down the university route and would have probably ended up in jobs unrelated to our degrees. For us learning on the job was by far the best way.

It was like being fast-tracked, professionally and personally.

We had to do a year on site before we went to college but by the time we got there we felt like we had really begun learning our trade. It’s fair to say we were miles ahead of those who headed straight for college.

That showed learning on the job is paramount - you simply can't beat the knowledge of your senior, more experienced peers. There's only so much that books can teach you.

One way or another, good colleagues teach you everything you will need to learn to get on. It was simple. Everyone would set you aside a job and then just come in and check on you and leave you to that one job.

Even if that took you all day when it would have taken an experienced fitter half a day, it didn’t matter as long as you got it done properly.

The learning curve was steep, but what we learned stuck. We made mistakes but we learned through our own lived experience.

Being in an adult environment is an eye opener but you learn how to respect and get on with your elders.

We set our own company up in 2017 and have been committed to the apprenticeship model as a means of bringing on and developing new staff.

We’ve noticed a massive skills gap. And the volume of young people with the right skills just aren’t coming through. No one we interview any more seems to be in their 20s unless their parents are involved in the trade.

It’s as if apprenticeships fell out of fashion and school careers advisors were pointing students to further education colleges rather than local companies.

But we know that skilled people are the lifeblood of our company so we’re doing or best to put that right. We know if we train them correctly, they're going to become important assets.

It is with that in mind, that we invest in training courses for our apprentices but also their management to ensure they are properly supported so they can add value and boost productivity with and their work ethic and enthusiasm.

By way of example, we recently invested £10,000 investment in two members of our team who successfully completed a 15-day course to qualify as certified F-Gas engineers at Ellis Training in Hertfordshire.  

The Refrigeration, Air Conditioning & Heat Pump Systems City & Guilds course mainly involves practical sessions, learning to use tools and equipment and installing systems as was an important part of our colleagues’ continuous development.

For every apprentice, there will be regular reviews and thorough appraisals where we acknowledge and praise what they’re doing well and support what they need to do differently. It’s important to us that, they will also get the chance to have their say on how they want things to proceed.

We set aside time to work with them on a one-on-one basis and I think that is reflective of an overall culture where want to help people get on and develop.

Also, we do our due diligence as well to make sure we’re getting the right people with the right attitude. We don’t just rely on interviews. We will look at school references and also their social media activity which seems to be a good barometer of character.

In return, we know we have a responsibility to help each and every one of our apprentices to progress. We try and promote from within, and we make sure every apprentice sees they can progress if they apply themselves.

ACR companies can employ apprentices at different levels - school leavers, university graduates, or people wanting to change career direction.

As an employer, you can get funding from the government to help pay for apprenticeship training which will encourage up-and-coming companies like Campbell West.

We generally take on 16- to 19-year-olds and so we qualify for government support which is welcome.

Sadly, young people come to us after undertaking college courses with certificates that aren’t worth the money they are printed on when they enter the real world.

If our Government really wants to get bang for its buck, then it needs to focus on guidance for 15 and 16-year-olds so they’re more aware of what apprenticeship can offer so they don’t waste their time on inappropriate courses.

In our view, apprenticeships are still very much undervalued. They are not front of mind with young people, their parents or their schools. That needs to be put right by whoever is in power after the General Election.

Written by
June 3, 2024
Written by
Steven Campbell and Daniel West
June 3, 2024