Making apprenticeships more relevant for businesses

By Kathryn Kirk

Only 13% of organisations in NI employ apprentices (Employer Perspectives Survey, 2016) and the majority of these firms are large employers. It seems that the apprenticeship system is irrelevant for small and micro businesses.

In 2020 we undertook research across 100 small businesses in Northern Ireland and found that the main reason they did not recruit apprentices was because they were unsure of how to engage with the apprenticeship system. They were also concerned with the risks associated with employing an apprentice, specifically relating to mentoring, ensuring adequate on–the–job learning and committing to a minimum 2–year programme.

“In many countries shared apprenticeship agencies have been developed to help companies employ apprentices when they don’t have appetite or ability to hire them directly.”


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The agency is the apprentice’s employer and the company leases the apprentice for a fee on a part–time or full–time basis, for as long or short as they need. This helps companies engage with the apprenticeship system and its benefits without the risks that come with employing an apprentice e.g. mentoring, contracts, training etc.

It also helps people to access meaningful employment and education despite full apprenticeships not being available within companies.

The impact of Covid on apprenticeship numbers in 2020 has shown how tied they are to the labour market. The shared apprenticeship model could provide greater resilience to labour market fluctuations, as it doesn’t require an apprentice to be fully employed with a single employer, thereby reducing the risk of redundancy or furlough.


Workplus has been commissioned by the Department for the Economy under the Apprenticeship Challenge Fund to research the viability of a shared apprenticeship in Northern Ireland.


To support this research we have partnered with Ormeau Baths, Catalyst, LEDCOM & Ards Business Hub. These are networks of businesses that are physically connected and already have a shared sense of community and identity, working together on matters of common interest.

Shauna Collins, Director of HR at Catalyst says:

“Recognising the challenges for our companies to hire and retain in–demand talent, Catalyst is keen to explore if we can use our positioning at the heart of the community to work with Workplus to make it easier for our community to source and develop the talent needed to match their growth plans”.

Claire Dowds, General Manager, Ormeau Baths, says

“In this ever–changing climate, we want to do everything we can to support our members and help their businesses grow. We believe that an exploration of how developing talent through apprenticeships might aid in this growth.”

Get involved!

To help shape this work please complete this 5 minute survey by 1pm on Friday 26 February which will also enter you into a prize draw with the chance to win an Oculus Quest 2!




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