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Degree apprenticeships - are they right for your business?

Helen Culshaw is managing director of Ascendancy Internet Marketing Limited, based in Newport, and here she discusses why more small Shropshire businesses should consider using degree apprenticeships

A degree apprenticeship enables you to offer your staff (either new employees or established members of staff) a fully-funded degree at minimal cost to your business and no cost to them.

Like other apprenticeships, they involve your staff member spending 20% of their time studying, and 80% of their time working for your business.

A wide range of degree subjects are available – for us, the most appropriate degrees are Digital & Technology Solutions, and Digital Marketing.

There are relatively few small businesses that offer degree apprenticeships, and yet they offer huge advantages to the smaller employer. At Ascendancy we started offering them in 2019, and we haven’t looked back.

What does it cost?

Small employers (with a payroll under £3 million) currently only pay 5% of the tuition fees of their apprentices. With a typical degree’s tuition fees currently being £9,000 per annum, this could mean a payment of just £450 per year per degree apprentice.

Larger businesses pay an ‘apprenticeship levy’ which funds apprenticeships within their own business but can potentially also be transferred to other employers. You may therefore even be able to find a larger organisation that will transfer some of their levy funds to you to cover the already minimal cost. Shropshire Council, for example, transfer up to 25% of their annual levy fund to other employers, and have an application form on their website that you can complete, should your business wish to apply.

Of course, you need to pay your apprentice a salary! And there may be some additional costs – for example, we chose to pay our apprentices’ travel costs for visiting their learning provider.

But for your staff member, the degree doesn’t need to cost anything at all.

How does the 20% study time work?

One of our key reservations about the scheme at the outset was whether we could cope with having the employee out of the office and/or studying for 20% of the time. The employees that we offered the degree apprenticeship to were all established members of staff, not brand-new starters, and they had responsibilities that we felt would be difficult to cover if they were not there 20% of the time.

Different apprenticeship providers arrange the 20% off-the-job time differently. Some have a regular day per week where your apprentice is always studying, while others bundle the time up into blocks.

Some providers have a lot of remote learning as part of their package, which your apprentice can work on from anywhere, including their home or a quiet space in your office. Others require the apprentice to travel to their location on a regular basis.

For us, the practicality of how they arrange the 20% is one of the key criteria for selecting a particular provider. Your apprentice needs to be able to get to where they are going with ease, and the arrangement needs to be practical for the business too.

How long does the degree take?

Amazingly, not always much longer than a normal full-time degree. Providers differ, but our first two degree apprentices were able to complete their degrees in just over three years.

What are the benefits to the business?

Ultimately, this is what it boils down to, isn’t it? There has to be a business benefit.

For us, it’s a great way for us to offer our staff a HUGE benefit with just a small amount of cost and inconvenience to the business. In the ‘new normal’ where it is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain good staff, and where our ambitious local young people tend to move away from the area to build their careers, it gives local small businesses a fantastic way to recruit and retain intelligent, hard-working young people.

As small businesses we can’t always compete with bigger businesses on salary and benefits, but this is something we can offer our staff that most employers don’t.

The degree apprenticeships provide a framework to help us develop our staff’s skills and experience, and understand the theory behind the practice of the services we deliver every day. Having them mix with staff from other businesses working in similar roles is invaluable too – it helps them to understand how their role fits within the wider business context.

How to get the ball rolling

You’ll need two things – a suitable employee and a degree apprenticeship provider.

The latter is easy – register for the Government’s Apprenticeship Service, and you can register your interest in there for a particular degree apprenticeship programme. The relevant apprenticeship providers will then reach out to you!

The suitable employee – that’s over to you. Maybe you already have someone in your business that would be a good fit?

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