As founder and owner of recruitment consultancy MiddletonMurray, Angela Middleton works closely with both young job seekers and SMEs. As a result, she is only too aware of the disconnect between the two groups: young people often leave school ill-equipped for the workplace; employers don't have the time or money to hire someone who doesn't have the skills for the job. This gulf is just one of the reasons for high youth unemployment and a generation with plenty of latent talent being overlooked by the business community.
While this scenario isn't ideal, employers' reluctance to take on young people is understandable. The common perception is that young people don't have the hard skills for the job; their soft skills (communication, reliability, reasoning etc.) are less developed than their older counterparts; their lack of experience tells in pressure situations; they can behave immaturely; and they're unfamiliar with workplace etiquette. By no means do all employers tar every young person with this same brush; but when SMEs are under pressure to make ends meet, many see a young applicant as an unnecessary risk.
A new report this week from think tank, The Work Foundation, agrees. Report author Paul Sissons says that traditional apprenticeships were mainly in manufacturing; whereas today's jobs and apprenticeships are largely in service sectors for which young people often lack the soft skills required. Sissons says that young people need assistance at "this crucial point of transition".
During her recruitment work with businesses around the UK, Middleton has bumped up against these common concerns all too often. MiddletonMurray has therefore instituted a pioneering "pre-apprenticeship" programme; aimed at better preparing young candidates for the workplace and, in the process, forging links with local employers who would take on apprentices.
It's good for candidates, as they are often at their lowest ebb by the time they join up. It's also good for business at MiddletonMurray, as the apprentices of today are often the professionals of tomorrow - many of these people will be Middleton's candidates for decades to come.
Unlike so many welfare-to-work or recruitment programmes, though, the MiddletonMurray scheme puts its money where its mouth is: whilst there are no guarantees, so far 100% of candidates accepted onto the pre-apprenticeship scheme has gone on to secure an apprenticeship. And unlike the less reputable so-called 'programme-led apprenticeships' run by some companies, there's no massaging of the figures: the full apprenticeship only begins once a candidate has secured a placement, and MiddletonMurray remains judged on its ability to secure such placements. All the company's battalion of resources are used to ensure that, despite the tough economic conditions, young job-seekers and employers meet, work and thrive together.
The pre-apprenticeship programme gives its young intake the best chance of securing a placement by addressing each barrier to employment. When writing the programme, Middleton recognised short-termism amongst young people as one of the first barriers to tackle: "16 to 18 year olds don't wake up thinking they want an apprenticeship; they just want a job and some income, and they want to know how to get one." No employer, meanwhile, wants an apprentice who doesn't see the benefit in their placement. The candidate's heart won't be in the job and it will have a negative effect on the rest of the team. As a result, each intake on the intensive four-week programme is quickly introduced to the idea of an apprenticeship as a means to an end: a pathway to a real job.
A similar problem Middleton found during her work with school leavers was the expectation gap between what a young person thinks an apprenticeship will be like and the reality of what the position entails. "The traditional view of an apprenticeship is that it's very hands on, whether that's learning to build a wall or plumb a house. There is plenty of practical experience to be gained from an apprenticeship, but many young people are unaware that this is complemented with a significant amount of education, which will lead to technical certificates and formal qualifications in Maths, IT and English." Middleton again wanted to ensure that local businesses were not lumbered with under-informed and ill-prepared apprentices. As a result, the programme ensures that each intake knows exactly what to expect from an apprenticeship, realigning their expectations and promoting the benefits of on-the-job learning.
Discipline is another barrier to placing candidates successfully. Consequently, MiddletonMurray ensures its apprentices are fully prepared for the rigours of employment and adhere to workplace rules. The pre-apprenticeship improves candidates' soft-skills by boosting their confidence and teaching them the people-skills needed to succeed in the workplace, such as communication and teamwork. Furthermore, each trainee is primed on the less satisfying sides of office work, such as rejection of their ideas or the fact that they will sometimes end up carrying out repetitive or mundane tasks.
The pre-apprenticeship programme ends with a real accreditation, so upon completion each trainee receives BTecs in work skills and customer service. These qualifications recognise a solid grounding in office basics - when to use email or the telephone; when to deal with things personally and when and how to escalate an issue, etc. As well as providing the young person with a nationally recognised qualification to add to their CV, the BTec gives them a real sense of achievement - before they've even begun their apprenticeship. Experience has already shown that this means employers participating in the scheme are taking on apprentices high in both confidence and enthusiasm.
Armed with a BTec and a range of work-ready skills, a young person is a much more attractive proposition to an SME. As Middleton says, 'Completion of the pre-apprenticeship demonstrates that the young person has skills and knowledge that will add real value to a business. When employers see apprentices flourishing at other companies - doing jobs they might pay someone £15k to do - the potential benefits to their bottom line becomes much more tangible.' Middleton's pre-apprentice have all the energy and enthusiasm of youth, but focused by the right skills and attitude to hit the ground running.
Among the programme's many success stories, Middleton remembers a 'shy, retiring, unassuming girl' who was the last candidate to be placed from her four-week intake. After plenty of coaching and perseverance, MiddletonMurray secured her an apprenticeship with an internet marketing company. She has gone on to be offered a full-time job as a trainee internet campaign manager, working with marquee clients like Channel 4 and Snickers. The formerly shy apprentice is now passing on her experience to new candidates on the MiddletonMurray programme.
Middleton says, 'There's plenty more untapped talent out there. If all small companies took just one young person on, not only would the appointments add value to their businesses, there would no longer be a problem with youth unemployment.' Her message to companies hesitant to take on young employees is to think more long-term: 'If you want to build a business with longevity, you have to think about succession planning. This means getting young blood in at the bottom to replace those that move up.'
The MiddletonMurray pre-apprenticeship scheme is currently expanding nationwide, currently running in 6 locations across London and one in the Midlands. It's an ideal opportunity for SMEs and growing businesses with constrained budgets but high ambitions to mitigate the risk of "hiring young" and support both their business and its future talent.
Find out more about MiddletonMurray at: www.middletonmurray.com