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Educating businesses

As the owner of a successful jewellery business, Jason Holt must have a good appraising eye. One of the virtues of his report on apprenticeships and small business was the way he trained his jeweller's loupe on business as well as the education world.

Surprisingly, he refused to blame the old cliche of "red tape", and indeed reported back that he could find no regulation that was specific to apprenticeships that prevented small businesses from recruiting.

Instead, he identified the problem as being one of customer service. Where businesses were unhappy or uninterested in apprenticeships, it was because they were being offered something that wasn't relevant. As the best performers already do, colleges and training providers needed to spend time identifying business needs, designing something that fulfils them, and communicating to the customer that they have what is needed.

This is partly an inherent problem of government provision. It is planned centrally and on an annual cycle, so it struggles to respond to fluctuations in demand. The risk is either leaving demand unsatisfied or having to flog remaindered stock door-to-door.

That is what we are seeing with the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers. Just a few months in, demand for the #163;1,500 grant for hiring an apprentice is already low. One optimistic conclusion is that the cost of hiring an apprentice may not be the barrier for businesses: they are certainly not being swayed by the offer of money.

The most common reason for taking on an apprentice is being approached by a provider that offers one. Mr Holt sees this as a system that is geared towards providers, not businesses. But it also demonstrates that small businesses aren't taking the initiative in training and developing their staff. They don't know what is offered free by the government and they don't necessarily know what they want. In that case, it's good that colleges and training companies are taking the lead, even if they do sometimes appear a little like encyclopedia salesmen.

Mr Holt has some good proposals to help create a culture more receptive to training in small business. One is cooperation with business groups such as the British Chambers of Commerce. Such organisations can communicate to members the benefits of apprenticeships and visit schools to show pupils the career paths that apprentices can follow.

It's a fine idea. And in this spirit of collaboration, perhaps the education world could return a favour that business organisations have bestowed on them for decades. Every time exam results are published the chambers of commerce, the Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses weigh in. Perhaps colleges and training providers should start to comment more loudly about how well business is equipped to make use of the skills that they provide.

This isn't mere retaliation. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has questioned Britain's capacity to deploy staff with higher-level skills. Underemployment of graduates can be seen as education producing "too many" of them, or as business failing to use them.

On the eve of this year's GCSE results, the Federation of Small Businesses published a survey that found that eight in 10 employers think school-leavers are not ready for work. But with only 10 per cent of small businesses employing apprentices, it is fair to say that business is not ready for school-leavers either.

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