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Why companies should hire apprentices: the Thales UK story

Thu, December 22, 2016

Whether you’re thinking about hiring your first apprentice or simply want your current scheme to be more successful, there are many good reasons to look to Thales UK. For this engineering company, apprentices aren’t an add-on factor but a key part of its HR strategy.

“Apprenticeships at Thales, in terms of hiring, is very much part of our talent pipeline,” says Nicola Todd, Head of Apprenticeship Development. “We recruit on all levels of our business [and] they feed very much into our succession plans for years to come.”

While the historic image of apprentices is of learning a trade and sticking at it, Thales has a clear focus on that word “talent”. It allows the company to handpick the best candidates, with no shortage of applicants for every vacancy, and help them get the most from their abilities.

There’s certainly no glass ceiling. “Some of our apprentices have actually gone on to high-profile positions within the company,” says Nicola. “Some members of our management board are actually ex-apprentices, so it shows you can work your way up to the top.”

Another key difference from hiring in other ways – say, graduates or from people on their second, third or fourth job – is the level of enthusiasm a tight-knit group of apprentices can offer a company. “They’re so enthusiastic, so engaged,” enthuses Nicola herself. “They really do add value from a very early stage.”

The levy factor

For many companies, apprenticeships may be part of their HR planning for the very first time come April 2017 – when the apprenticeship levy kicks in. This 0.5% charge will be applied to the monthly payroll for every company with an annual payroll of £3m or over, however Nicola doesn’t think it should be viewed as a tax but as an opportunity it to start apprenticeships.

“Employers should definitely take advantage of the vouchers that will be available and use the levy to start apprenticeships”

“I would advise companies who’ve never had apprentices to simply do it,” she says. “Even for us, the levy is an opportunity. We’ve recruited apprentices in the past, but a levy will be a driver to improve our talent pipelines. Employers should definitely take advantage of the vouchers that will be available and use it to start apprenticeships.”

As we discuss elsewhere – see 'How the apprenticeship levy will work', below – it’s important to consider ways you can work the levy to your advantage. If you have existing employees who would benefit from apprentice status, and who you can then send to college to learn valuable skills, then this could be an excellent way to spend the digital vouchers.

This gives apprentices an idea of what they enjoy, which leads on to the next two years: working out exactly what they want their future jobs to entail. “In years two and three of the apprenticeship, the guys and girls become more specialised in their chosen career paths,” says Paul. “For instance, they’ll move more towards telecoms or more towards signals.

Apprentices will continue to attend college for blocks of weeks during the second and third year, and will study for their NVQ – National Vocational Qualification – at the same time. The third year is when apprentices become more established in their workplace teams, which they’re likely to join as full-time employees once the course is over.

The PROCAT factor

PROCAT has been training apprentices since 1969, when it was first established by a group of local engineering employers who wanted a training facility. Since then it’s rapidly grown and developed, becoming the UK’s first college of Advanced Technology in 2014. “We chose PROCAT for many reasons,” says Paul, “with just one being that they know what they’re doing! Their facilities are really good and the relationship that we’ve built up has been fantastic.”

Both parties were keen to set up a long-term partnership, to the extent that PROCAT built a working train track within its Basildon campus and fitted Thales equipment, so that students can apply what they learn in college out on the tracks the very next day.

So, we asked Paul, should other employers choose PROCAT? “Definitely. They’re professionals, they know what they’re doing. They’ve had thousands of apprentices come through this facility – go to the experts.”

With the arrival of the apprenticeship levy in April 2017 (see below), there will be thousands of British companies planning to take on apprentices for the first time. Engineering firms have naturally taken the lead over the years, so what could others learn from their experience?

“The advice I always give to other employers is to recruit apprentices,” says Nicola. “I think they’re a fantastic investment, and they’re really motivated, really engaged and it’s a great way to grow talent within a business.”

What’s stopping you?

How the apprenticeship levy works

The government wants British businesses to invest in apprentices, which means it’s offering both a carrot and stick to make this happen. The key date is 6 April 2017, when both the main stick – the apprenticeship levy – and the carrot comes into effect.

The carrot is that businesses will receive digital vouchers to spend on apprenticeship training. That could include formal training to support apprentices’ learning requirements, or an assessment of learners’ skills and competencies.

That means you can work in partnership with a recognised college – such as PROCAT – to develop a course to train both new employees and existing employees. While the government is giving particular help for those aged between 16 and 18, there is no age limit.

Looked at from this point of view, you should be thinking about whether an apprenticeship scheme makes sense for your company. Are there skills that a college like PROCAT could help you develop? Could you supplement or replace existing straining schemes for current employees?

The amount you have to spend depends on your payroll. The levy is 0.5% of every £1 you spend on staff, so if your annual payroll is £1 million then your digital voucher tally would be £5,000. The government then tops that up by 10% to £5,500.

What’s more, there’s no need to pay into the scheme unless your payroll goes above £3 million per year, so effectively you’re getting digital vouchers for free (again, with caveats!). As such, the apprenticeship levy is an amazing opportunity for every employer in the UK.

For full details of how it works head to, where you’ll also be able to read our 16-page guide to the levy.