Hi Teabirds. Krisi, Bird & Blend’s co-founder, here.
I have been planning on getting a blog up about the apprenticeship scheme (which we have used at Bird & Blend) covering good points, bad points and views from our apprentices themselves. I get a lot of requests for our thoughts, as we have been championed in the past as the scheme's success story and were recently invited to No.10 to discuss it with policy makers.
To give a fuller picture of how we use the apprenticeship scheme, we have had one successful apprentice complete a business admin year (Eve our current Customer Service Manager), one packing (warehouse) apprentice (who is now a permanent member of our warehouse team) and in the past we had an existing team member who wanted to enrol on the NVQ level 3 management programme through the apprentice scheme. We recently also placed a Digital Media Apprentice.
The good, the bad and the ugly...
I have chosen to get something up sooner rather than later, as we have been at the centre of a passionate social media debate which has then been taken too far by one individual who has then targeted our customers and our team members, both on social media and at our Brighton store.
I would like to add that we are happy to discuss the scheme- warts and all- and that I personally offered to call this individual, with an invite to come into Bird & Blend, so that they could interview me and those we currently and have in the past, employed into the scheme.
It isn’t often the founder of a business opens their doors and offers their time in this way – what a great way of energising this debate!
However, this offer has been ignored and since then misinformed comments about exploiting staff, wanting to cut costs and not being a decent or fair employer have followed. Some of which were being directed at my team members and my customers, which I absolutely don’t think is very helpful, fair or professional.
Coincidentally it's Eve, previously an apprentice, who answers our social media accounts and after she had tried to deal with the comments in a professional, friendly and helpful manner – even being able to give her own personal experience of the apprenticeship scheme – it got to the point where I felt I had to step in once again and write this post. I will not accept anyone upsetting, distressing or annoying any of my team or my customers. This is something I feel incredibly passionate about.
The argument against...
If we take a step back and look at the genuine points that have been made regarding the scheme, we can see that it is by no means infallible. I personally know that some companies out there do exploit it for 'cheap labour'.
The main concern stated during the social media debate was that the apprenticeship scheme doesn't offer a fair wage (the apprenticeship minimum wage is below the national minimum wage rate) and that an apprenticeship removes a job from the local jobs market. Also, that an existing role within a company can just be ‘rebranded’ as an apprenticeship and the apprentice is then fulfilling the same role, but for less money than other workers would be paid.
‘£3.30 an hour, rising to £3.75 if you’re lucky’
One of the comments that stuck in my head said you might be paid '£3.75 if you're lucky'. Obviously this was meant as a negative.
Yes, this was the wage we advertised for one of our past apprenticeships. It is above the apprentice minimum wage and it is not exploitative (in our opinion) when you consider all of the facts. As I’ll explore more later, the apprenticeship scheme is an educational programme rather than a job in the usual understanding.
There is a national minimum wage for apprentices set by the government which has to be adhered to. The wage is lower than ‘regular’ national minimum wage, as it takes into consideration study hours that are on paid working time, that go towards an NVQ qualification on completion of the scheme. It also takes into consideration that the candidates may have little or no workplace experience at all, which can be a huge drain on a businesses resources.
There is no doubt the minimum apprentice wage was set lower by the government to try to convince companies to invest in individuals that they would usually ignore. Whether or not you think it is right or wrong, the fact remains that the costs to a business training and supporting an inexperienced and under qualified team member in the workplace are very high.
To a small business like ours, that cost is even higher- around triple that of employing an experienced and fully trained team member.
No matter what issues we have with the scheme or how it is misused (by others), I do believe that the lower wage ‘incentive’ for employers has a noble aim – to get more people an opportunity to get workplace skills that otherwise cannot get a break.
The 'if you're lucky' part was what really got me.
Getting an apprenticeship position with us has nothing to do with being ‘lucky’- candidates have to have shown passion, a spark and dedication to get a position at Bird & Blend.
We treat the apprenticeship scheme as it should be seen- not as a chance to get someone to do low paid work but to give deserving people, who are otherwise struggling, a chance to learn key workplace skills and experience and truly reach their potential.
'Everyone is entitled to be paid fairly for the work that they do'
We firmly agree.
In any successful working environment, it is the case that if you demonstrate hard work and passion you are rewarded for doing so.
When it became apparent very quickly that our first apprentice, Eve, was performing well above the skill set that we initially expected of an apprentice, we promoted her to Trainee Customer Services Manager with a salary well above national minimum wage to match. She also had a company laptop, phone and car allowance and got to attend both Glastonbury festival and No.10 as a reward for her commitment to Bird & Blend. All of this happened before she was even half way through her apprenticeship.
We have this same approach with everyone we take on, apprentice or otherwise.
'‘They can apply for a job after the year & can be turned down?’
The idea is that an individual comes out of their apprenticeship year with an NVQ qualification, skills and experience that then stands them in good stead for the future. Should they wish to stay at Bird & Blend, we will have them with open arms; should they wish to take their skills elsewhere they are also free to do so.
I cannot comment on what other establishments do, but it makes absolutely no business sense whatsoever to us to invest a year of time, money, effort and in many cases emotion, in an individual and then not offer them a position where they can start to pay back their investment in the form of the value they can now add to our company.
That is the business side, but on our very personal side, we always make it clear there is a job waiting at the end of their year because we only ever employ individuals that we can see staying with us in the long term. We are a family, not a workforce, and you sure have to have long term dedication to be able to grow a passionate start up like ours.
The type of job they land at the end is partly up to them, true, depending on how they have spent their training year. But it is unlikely that they will have the same responsibilities as they did when they started their apprenticeship. Again, what business sense does it make to place an individual with all these new skills in a role that is below their skill set?
I know I am not the only one who thinks being able to build your own role in a caring, happy company like ours is a fantastic opportunity – and I will not be made to feel ashamed by it. At the end of the day, people vote with their feet and, as our two apprentices will tell you, they love working at Bird & Blend and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
'This ‘apprenticeship’ removes a real job from an already scarce local market.'
You don’t have to tell me about the state of the local jobs market. Mike and I have built a business within it that has provided 30 new jobs. We have worked incredibly hard and with the right intentions – people first not profits. (Not bad for two kids from the Midlands who started 3 years ago in their bedroom).
It is also unfair to compare an apprenticeship year to other jobs; it is more accurate to compare it to university or college – where in fact, you have to pay to gain similar skills and qualifications.
We do not take an existing role and decide to offer it to someone who we can ‘get away with paying less to’. That wouldn’t be fair to an apprentice candidate who wouldn’t have the skills necessary to be able to fulfil it- and it wouldn’t work for us as the role wouldn’t be being done to the required standard.
In a larger organisation, you might be able to get away with this- but in a smaller company like ours, everyone needs to be able to do their job to the standard which is required, otherwise the whole team is impacted.
Our apprenticeship positions are crafted from scratch- and only when we see an opportunity to provide the support and training in our businesses to someone who has fewer skills or experience. We then build the role around the candidate, offering projects and opportunities which we think they’ll enjoy and value.
Because we approach it in this way, we are actually creating a brand new role and job, on top of those that we need to fill, just with the aim of providing an apprenticeship placement. This is why it ends up costing us so much more than the wage that we pay.
If we were set on abusing the scheme (as I acknowledge some do) we could very easily have 100 apprentices now – working in our stores, working in our warehouse, working in our office all for a lower wage. But we only have one.
'Aiming to undercut minimum wage by calling a (job role) an ‘apprentice’''
There is a clear difference in roles and responsibilities between one of our 'regular' team and our apprentices.
Our apprentices work reduced and flexible hours to suit them if needed, study as part of their working time, benefit from weekly and monthly mentoring and workplace training sessions (currently with myself), get further development support and training in the workplace from a qualified NVQ trainer, benefit from a more flexible approach to work in terms of timekeeping and communication, are supported over a period of a year to start at a lower level or a slower speed of work in order to gain the experience.
As mentioned, we then hope over the period to fast track them to increased responsibilities which come with higher salaries. That is why our apprenticeship job listings show many possible responsibilities and aspects of working within our team.
For a person struggling to get into the right work for them, for whatever reason, the apprenticeship scheme- unlike volunteering- gets qualifications onto CVs, as well as experience which is more attractive to future employers. The right apprenticeship would also allow flexibility and a work place mentor to allow a gentler ‘settling’ in to the working environment. (E.g. We are more relaxed to start with with things like timekeeping, presentation and communication as we understand they are all new skills to be learnt.).
If someone wants to get into an industry, or indeed the workforce at all, and they cannot because they haven’t got the skills or experience needed then they need a break. The apprenticeship scheme gives them that, along with a qualification. The hope is that at the end of their learning year we can get them up to the level they need to be at to be able to get a role they deserve.
Many candidates see an apprenticeship as an attractive learning platform instead of going to university, for which they have to pay extortionate rates and build up large debts to do. When considering the alternative job opportunities open to them you can see why they might choose an apprenticeship.
“Be honest and admit that a job exists to make a profit for your company”
I can see why on first glance it appear that we make money out of paying someone £3.30 an hour – but it just isn’t the case. We invest a lot of time, training and support into our apprenticeship placements, which is costly to us, but just as valuable (if not more) to a team member as money.
I have already explained above how we go about creating the select few apprenticeships we have and also some of the reasoning behind them. Profit making is 100% not on the agenda, as quite simply it doesn’t make us any money.
I have also outlined that once you consider time, support and other resources it ends up costing us around triple that of a ‘regular’ employee to employ an apprentice.
I am the workplace mentor for the apprenticeship scheme. It is something that I take very seriously and that takes up a lot of my time. If I was purely out to make profits and exploit people, my time could be better spent.
Overall, there are many loopholes that can (and do) get exploited within the apprenticeship programme- I researched it well before we joined!
But we certainly do not exploit the scheme. In fact, we changed providers when we lost confidence in the attitude of our first one towards their candidates and Mike visited No.10 to discuss some of the problems with the scheme with members of the policy unit there, in the hope that it could be improved.
It’s a shame that when I was keen to chat to the individuals who have been tweeting us, answer questions and hear their thoughts, perhaps sharing some of the criticisms we personally have of the scheme, they have not responded. Instead I have had to write a defence of our decision to be involved.
It is also absurd that with all the companies out there behaving completely irresponsibly and who drove us into starting our own business in an attempt to do better and be better, it is our small independent business, run by its passionate and hardworking team members, that is being targeted in a negative way.
We make positive changes in the world around us, from treating our customers as we would our closest friends, to our dedication to developing our team and our eco policies, by using supported employers as suppliers and giving profits away to local charities. It is a shame that some thoughtless individual can seek to cast a shadow on that with a few thoughtless words.
Overall, by using the scheme responsibly and putting in a lot of time, it has enabled us to provide some very well deserving people a chance to work somewhere they love, with people who care, learning skills they may not achieve elsewhere.
I will not be made to feel ashamed for that and as long as my team are all happy- and due to our open door policy they are the first to let me know if they are not (!)- then I am too.
I apologise to any of our customers being disturbed and ask you kindly to be patient and not be drawn into the fictional statements.
If anyone would be interested in asking any further questions, either to learn more about the facts of how Bird & Blend use the apprenticeship scheme or my personal opinions regarding it, please feel free to email me at: [email protected]