October 26, 2020

Looking at the long-term apprenticeship picture

As National Apprenticeship Week (5th-9th March) kicks off, Richard Doughty looks at how a far-sighted approach to developing apprentices can lead to long-lasting benefits for companies within the FMCG sector.

Richard Doughty

“An apprentice on the board within 25 years, that’s my aim,” vowed Bakkavor’s group apprentice manager, Cian Short, on the eve of this year’s National Apprenticeship Week (March 5-9). Fresh from winning the 2017 ‘Training Programme of the Year’ at the Food Manufacture Excellence Awards in November, he knows the lasting value of a well-trained and motivated apprentice.

“Without our apprenticeship programme that takes on 20-30 apprentices each year, we’d struggle to attract some of the young talent we now have,” he says. Although the Group is a leading global provider of fresh prepared foods with more than 18,000 staff across the UK and abroad, “people don’t know about us because we are not a branded company, so we work hard to attract talent. We currently have around 250 apprentices working for qualifications ranging from level 2 (equal to five GCSEs) through to level 6 (degree).”

Bakkavor, like many other large and small producers in the food and drink sector, is taking advantage of the new apprenticeship levy, a tax on companies with a £3m-plus annual salary bill that can be reclaimed to fund apprenticeship training for new and existing staff. Companies below the £3m threshold receive 90% government funding, paying just 10% of training costs.

What makes funding stretch much further is the choice of training provider. Bakkavor chose CQM Training & Consultancy Ltd, a food and drink specialist, to support a new adult apprenticeship programme at its Hitchen Foods factory in Wigan based on the new national ‘standard’ apprenticeships that are replacing the old-style ‘framework’ models.

“From the start CQM T&C delivered far more than they indicated,” says Short. “At the end of the first programme, we’d saved double the costs they told us we’d save. And, of the people they put through, eight were promoted at Hitchen Foods within six months of finishing the programme [Excellence award winner].

“Much of that was down to the apprentices’ confidence in their own abilities because of how CQM T&C had taught them. That’s continued with the second cohort. You can see the difference in people.”

Why so successful? “They really understand production, know what works, and are realistic about how they do things,” says Short. “We’re constantly on the phone, thinking about what we can tweak and do differently. They are more of a partner than just a provider.”

One of the shared goals is an emphasis on quality and return on investment. “We are really all about helping our nation close the productivity gap,” says CQM T&C’s managing director, Andy Cheshire. “Unlike many apprenticeships, our programmes focus on improving productivity – if you don’t bring benefits to the employer as well as the employee you don’t get sustainability and that is why we won the Excellence award with Bakkavor. They had generated tremendous savings for themselves plus customer benefits, as well as developing staff to sustainably improve their operations.”

Cheshire wants his clients to see CQM T&C as an extension of their operations, as a partnership to help develop their staff. “We have had an ongoing relationship with Hitchen Foods for the past three years.”

With 1,000 apprentices on its books, and a 20-30% annual growth rate, CQM T&C expects all its trainees to deliver a substantial improvement project as part of their 15-18 month programmes, whether it be root cause problem-solving or the result of innovative thinking.

So, for example, at Hitchen Foods, apprentices redesigned a workspace occupied by 80 staff which resulted in a significant reduction in accident rates. Another group saved money, time and materials by fixing mincing machinery resulting in a substantial reduction in waste and in the cleaning process.

Apprenticeship programme manager Julie Harris at another major CQM T&C client, Premier Foods, singles out the provider’s willingness to trail-blaze new apprenticeship standards – in Premier’s case advanced food operator level 3 – and its hand-on approach and ability to adapt its practices to Premier’s ways of working. The first cohort of five adult apprentices based in Worksop will shortly become one of the first to qualify in the UK if they pass their end-point assessment.

Jen Hind, HR and training business partner for Premier in Worksop, points out some of the many intangible benefits of apprenticeships for employers. “They can massively improve workplace morale because staff can see we are investing in our workforce’s future. We include as much of the workforce in the programmes as we can – we are often keen to move staff into an apprenticeship programme, giving others responsibility for coaching and mentoring the apprentices.

Good communication is key to a successful partnership with a provider, says Hind. “On site our own apprenticeships steering team meets monthly … and relays anything back to CQM T&C. Our first programme with CQM T&C – advance food operator level 3 (equal to two A-levels) – was a trailblazer so we had to tweak things. We’d get the service we wanted from CQM T&C and they would know if we were happy or not and what they could do to improve things.”

Of course, spending the levy to set up an apprenticeship scheme is a skilled process. With the accent on quality, CQM T&C’s Cheshire warns against companies focusing on quantity in their levy spending. “We won’t spend our whole apprenticeship levy but just the right amount to achieve the results we want to achieve and develop the people who we want see achieve. The best businesses have taken this strategic approach rather than thinking they just need to get their apprenticeship money spent.”

Premier’s Julie Harris is aware that some organisations may be writing the levy off as a tax, rather claiming any funds towards training. “I would encourage companies to explore their options with a provider and invest in the long-term development of their staff.

“Yes, it can be difficult for food businesses to plan long-term development because of the nature of food production. However, you can develop a practical programme for operators that sees them gain in confidence and develop online skills. I believe you really do get productivity gains by empowering people through learning. The skills and investment are ultimately win-win for both staff and employers.”

Bakkavor’s Cian Short gives his take on apprenticeship strategy: “You have to ensure your apprentices go to the right site, at the right time, on the right programme, with the right mentors and managers. We could recruit several hundred people a year rather than our intake of 20-30 but I’d worry about the control. It has to be right for them.

“Ultimately if they’re choosing us instead of university or elsewhere, we’ve got to make their decision turn out to be the right one. I want my apprentices to stay with me forever!”