Suppliers told to stop whingeing and take up apprenticeship option

We’ve had National Apprenticeship Week and awards ceremonies in different sectors for various apprentices of the year, pledges from government to create thousands of new apprenticeship places, more businesses joining the ‘trailblazer programme’ and even apprenticeship degrees. But where are the apprentices in the fresh produce sector? Kathy Hammond takes a look at the opportunities for the sector

Apprenticeships certainly appear to be all the rage at the moment. Get your car serviced, your hair cut, take your child to nursery or visit a museum and you are likely to come across an enthusiastic young person forging a career and extending their education – whilst getting paid – thanks to an apprenticeship.

How apprenticeships work

Apprentices are typically 16-24 years old and are paid at least the minimum wage while they study for a work-based qualification. There is grant funding available for businesses who take on an apprentice, which can equate to as much as three months of the cost of an apprentice for many firms.

Apprenticeships are offered at three different levels; intermediate, advanced and higher, with equivalents of a GCSE level education, two A Levels or Level 4 NVQ respectively. An apprenticeship programme lasts for a minimum of a year and a maximum of four years, depending on the level.

Potential employers should register their interest with the National Apprenticeship Service, which is where they can also find an apprenticeship training organisation, usually a further education college, although there are also a host of others including blue-chip companies and specialist training organisations. There are apprenticeship training agencies for those employers that are not able to commit to the full length of the apprenticeship or do not want to deal with employing an apprentice directly.

Typically, an apprentice has a half-day away from the workplace to study a course at college. Alternatively, an assessor comes into the place of work regularly and study is carried out in the evenings.

Fresh involvement

During this year’s National Apprenticeship Week, in March, more employers were encouraged to ‘get in and go far’ with an apprenticeship and more than 23,000 new apprenticeships were pledged by employers. But, has the fresh produce sector taken notice? Where are all the apprentices in the fruit and vegetable industry?  

Sainsbury’s was quick off the mark when it launched its Level 2 horticulture and agriculture scheme with Staffline, the British Growers Association and Edge Apprenticeships last year. Already, there are various industry partners involved in this initiative including: Cornerways Nursery, Monaghan Mushrooms, Allpress Farms, G’s Fresh, AC Goatham & Son

New Farm Produce, Taylorgrown and Vitacress. The scheme follows up on the retailer’s Level 3 programme to train and develop department and store managers of the future. However, other smaller businesses further back along the supply chain have not been as interested.

From a buyer’s perspective, the ability to call on well-trained staff in the supplier base for support is of course crucial.

Education perspective

Richard Chambers is head of curriculum at Boston College, a further and higher education college in one of the UK’s key fresh produce growing areas of Lincolnshire. He holds responsibility for apprenticeships in 10 industry sectors from engineering to hair and beauty.

He’s been frustrated at the disconnection between the produce industry and education. “I think there is apathy out there and also a lack of awareness across the industry,” he says. “At Boston we offer business, customer service and engineering apprenticeships and also logistics, which covers transport and warehousing. But we do not do so much on the production side and I think that is something we need to do.”

Last year the college held a Field to Fork employment event and several fresh produce companies and service suppliers such as Produce World, Bakkavor and Turners were in attendance, but Chambers was hoping for more. “They were really just showcasing what they offer, but I think now it’s about how we fit education in to that; that’s the missing step,” he explains.

Chambers believes this gap where the fresh produce industry is concerned is what needs addressing. “It’s more about doing a bespoke qualification for what these companies need and as a college we would relish the opportunity to do that,” he notes.

The recruiter’s view

Chambers is not the only one banging the apprenticeship drum in the region. Martin Brown is a director of Henderson Brown, a specialist Peterborough-based recruitment firm for the produce industry through which he is in constant dialogue with fresh fruit and vegetable companies about their staffing and training needs. Brown is even better placed to state his view on apprenticeships in the sector, as there are two apprentices at his own company.

“Our first apprentice in business administration joined two-and-a-half years ago and we have now taken him on to develop into an office manager,” says Brown. “We took a new apprentice on two months ago. Our experience has been great.  

“A lot of the [fresh produce] businesses I speak to just say ‘that’s interesting’ when I tell them we have an apprentice. But I think apprentices are something the fresh produce industry should look at much more seriously. So many companies in this sector bemoan the fact that no young people are coming into the industry. Now as a sector it needs to stop whingeing and start trying to grow some of its own talent. Apprenticeships are a relatively low cost, low risk way of getting people into industry.”

There are some issues potential employers need to be mindful of though. “The recruitment process can be a bit tortuous,” says Brown. “And as an employer you do have to be prepared to put the time in with an apprentice.”

The local choice

However, whereas taking on ambitious graduates clearly has benefits for some of the major players in the supply chain, it’s hardly surprising the same ambition that made them such an attractive candidate in the first place could also see them move on to pastures new quite quickly, leaving employers with the sensation that they have trained a high-calibre candidate only for another firm to benefit.

Apprentices as a rule offer something different, says Brown. “With an apprentice, you are more likely to find that they are local, probably still live at home and are more tempered in their ambition and therefore will stay with you longer,” he says. “And they can be just as bright and capable as a graduate-level recruit.”

If you are tempted, now is the time to start the ball rolling and contact apprenticeship training organisations to snap up the best candidates. “If you want the best candidates, don’t leave it until August and the exam results come out,” warns Brown. What are you waiting for?

 
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