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Theme 6: Encouraging SME involvement in Apprenticeships

Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SME’s) face particular challenges in relation to taking on Apprentices. This includes greater difficulties in recruiting candidates which meet their particular needs, and providing the required learning and development for their employees. Many SME’s also struggle to offer the range of skills required by Apprenticeships in a work setting, given their particular specialisms.

Recent action research undertaken as part of the EU Erasmus funded COTRAIN project [1] relating to collaborative approaches to apprenticeship training further underline the particular challenges SME’s face and how collaborative arrangements can benefit apprentices, SME’s and industry as a whole [2].

In relation to challenges faced by SME’s trying to train apprentices alone the research [3] highlights ​​​​issues relating to the: 

  • Increased workload apprenticeships generate;
  • Involvement of in-company trainers;
  • Impact of training on daily production activities;
  • Lack of resources of many SME’s and that they often do not have all the equipment and machines required for teaching the occupation targeted. 

Those SME’s that have not previously trained apprentices are often reluctant to take on apprentices, with a particular concern being the potential costs of offering training placements, notably if an apprentice subsequently leaves the company [4].

These challenges have significant implications for the effective operation of the automotive and wider engineering sector. It has been pointed out that given the proportion of engineering jobs that are located within SMEs, failure to make Apprenticeships attractive to these employers is potentially damaging not only to the future of apprenticeships, but the whole economy [5].

In some cases employer involvement in the development of apprentices has tended to reflect the needs of large employers rather than SME’s. The evidence to date indicates this has been the case with the development of many of the new apprenticeship standards in England [6].

It is pointed out that in England the Trailblazer groups responsible for the development of apprenticeship standards to support different sectors tend to comprise primarily of large employers, usually offering programmes to a large number of apprentices and are characterised by well-resourced HR departments and organisational structures, that allow support systems for apprentices to be put in place, resources often not availbale to SME’s [7].

It has also been commented that while sector specific needs are important, small companies often need bespoke training that aids their ability to be durable, fast-moving and flexible, with many current apprenticeships not offering this level of flexibility. This has led some peopleto argue for a more modular approach to the design of apprenticeships in order to allow increased flexibiity to cater for specific company skill requirments [8].

Recent EU funded projects [9]  have piloted a number of initiatives to support SME’s engage in apprenticeships. The projects focussed activity on two types of partnerships [10]:

Building up intermediary bodies, such as chambers of commerce and professional organisations, to develop SME support structures and establish partnerships with bigger companies to assist SMEs in increasing the supply of apprenticeships.

  • Targeted cooperation between the umbrella organisation of existing European networks and organisations and their national members or affiliates for developing and setting up support for SMEs.

Some of the main activities included creating and strengthening networks and alliances, developing resources and tools, fostering teaching and training, as well as learning and sharing experiences and enhancing support through tutors and coaches.


[1] The idea behind developing the COTRAIN project was to contribute to increasing the quality of dual training, based on an understanding of the inadequacies of a “one-company one-training” model in relation to tackling skills mismatches.
[2] 2019 joint Cedefop and OECD symposium: The next steps for apprenticeship; 7 October 2019, Paris
[3] Creating collaborative training - Learning and working in a network of companies to meet training requirements more adequately; CoTrain; Cepag, Isabelle Michel, Education/Training Advisor COTRAIN project manager​​​​​​
[4] Good for Youth Good for Business; European Alliance for Apprenticeships, September 2019​​​​​​
[5] EXPERIENCE ENHANCED; Improving engineering degree apprenticeships, Engineering Professors Council ,September 2018​​​​​
[7] EXPERIENCE ENHANCED; Improving engineering degree apprenticeships, Engineering Professors Council ,September 2018
[9] In 2015, a specific Erasmus+ call under key action 3 – national support to policy reform – financed 16 projects on the engagement of SMEs in apprenticeships. . In total, the projects were worth € 8.3 million. The two-year projects were implemented between 2016 and 2018. Erasmus+ Programme KA3 – Support for Policy Reform’; Highlights from the Support for small and medium sized enterprises engaging in apprenticeships - Call for proposals EACEA 41/2015 Final Reports.
[10] Good for Youth Good for Business; European Alliance for Apprenticeships, September 2019
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