National Apprenticeship Week – HR Apprenticeships, an Employer’s Perspective

Taking on an apprentice for the first time when you’re unsure of what’s involved can seem daunting, but as experienced apprenticeship providers, Watson Martin is well equipped to guide employers through the process. Here we feature how Mark Ballard, Operations Director at Leathams, introduced HR apprentice Laura Crowther to the business.  Six months on and he’s discovered that it’s not as complicated as he thought!

Tell us about your role

As Operations Director at Leathams, a supplier of innovative quality food to the UK and Europe, I am responsible for logistics, warehousing, health and safety and HR for the business. I have been with Leathams for nearly nine years.  My background is in chilled warehousing logistics and food manufacture, a career spanning in excess of 30 years.

What is your company’s business?

The company identifies new and exciting foods from around the world, sometimes working with suppliers to ensure their factories and facilities are fit to supply the UK. We then import these products for distribution within the UK and Europe. We buy from 26 countries globally and have 139 employees.

What is your company’s view of apprenticeships generally?

We have seven in total, five in the accounts team, one in IT and now one in HR. The business as a whole is supportive of apprenticeships but hasn’t, until recently, explored the idea of introducing apprentices outside of accounts. It is only now that we are looking at apprenticeships as a wider opportunity.

How did the HR apprenticeship role come about?

We have not previously had an HR department at Leathams and the function has always been picked up almost as an add on for someone within the leadership team. This is obviously not ideal which is why we chose an HR apprenticeship role as a way of building a team.  Rather than trying to do it by bringing in someone senior, the business preferred to introduce an entry level role and recruit someone who is willing to learn, self-motivated and intelligent.

Why did you choose an HR apprentice over an HR assistant role?

It is my first experience of having an apprentice.  I was faced with a choice of recruiting an HR assistant or an HR apprentice. If we introduced an HR assistant and started them at the bottom and gave them no plan for the next three to five years to progress their career, they would always be an HR assistant fulfilling a basic administrative function. What we really wanted to do was to bring in an individual who could do the admin in the first instance, because that’s the role, but through internal and external exposure to training and experience would be able to progress through the various stages of an HR career.

What’s your experience of the apprenticeship programme so far?

It’s been a positive experience for both of us. I do have to remember that it’s sometimes difficult for Laura as this is her first job out of university and she isn’t part of an HR department where there are other people to go to for advice. It’s just me and I have a full time role in operations. The pandemic and working from home hasn’t helped but despite all this, Laura is doing very well. She is bright, bubbly and people orientated so in terms of introducing an apprentice to the business, Laura is a case of the right person, in the right place at the right time.

How do you support your apprentice in her programme?

We have regular 1:1 meetings to talk about Laura’s apprenticeship, to find out where she is at and the modules she is working on. Sometimes I offer her some advice on things she might have missed and could include. Laura prefers to allocate the 20% off-the-job training to her normal working week rather than setting aside one day a week for this.  She sometimes underestimates the time she spends on a particular activity along with the subsequent reflection which an important part of her programme but we have set a target to improve her score and it’s a work in progress.

What do you think are the main benefits of an apprenticeship programme?

For me there are two key benefits.  Firstly, as a smallish company having the support of a business like Watson Martin is particularly helpful.  I’m not an HR professional and while I have practical experience, I have no HR training.  Having the assistance of people who are HR professionals is of real benefit.

Secondly, the structure of the apprenticeship programme is excellent.  If this was just an HR assistant role and we were doing the training internally, it would never happen; the daily work demands would take over.  Training through an apprenticeship provides a structure that sits outside of Laura’s normal working day which is exactly what she needs. I wouldn’t do it in any other way.

How did you choose Watson Martin and why?

I have been talking about this role with colleagues for some time largely because I needed some support and I wanted to understand what our future HR would look like. I asked a colleague whose wife is an HR director for some advice as to where I should look. One of the company’s that she recommended was Watson Martin, so I made contact, received some information and it all seemed straight forward. The people I spoke to were very helpful so rather than go on a shopping expedition without really knowing what was on my shopping list I decided to go with Watson Martin. When I spoke with Emma Taylor, Laura’s adviser, we got on well and she was receptive to the role I had in mind. It was speaking to Emma that reassured me that an apprenticeship was the right way to go.

What is your experience of working with Watson Martin and your apprentice’s adviser?

We have regular formal reviews with Emma over Teams to discuss Laura’s progress but I have also had several conversations with Emma informally on points that have come up during the programme.  Emma is very approachable and can be contacted at any time if she is available to talk. Having an adviser like Emma to call on and clarify things or gain her advice is really helpful. Laura and Emma also have a good relationship. Emma can see that Laura is very enthusiastic about her learning.

How is the qualification and the apprenticeship improving the work of your apprentice?

It may be a bit too early to say as she is just six months in, but I believe the apprenticeship is giving Laura insight which she is using to ask questions of the business that she would otherwise not have considered.  The balance of marrying up her experiences at Leathams with her apprenticeship and her CIPD qualification and vice versa is working well.   Without the programme this would not be happening and asking the right questions is proving helpful to me.  It’s fair to say that our current HR strategy has come from the questions being asked by the modules she is working on.

What new skills and knowledge has your apprenticeship developed to support their role?

Since joining us last June, Laura has been involved in the end of furlough, a redundancy programme because of Covid, and a major head office relocation, all of which she wouldn’t have been exposed to daily in a larger company.  These are major activities which come along sometimes once in a career. Laura has experienced all this first-hand over a short time which is the huge benefit of working for an SME. You could argue that would be nice if it was neatly spread out but that’s not how life is.  She has gained lots of experience that will help her progress.

Would you recommend Watson Martin as an apprenticeship provider to others?

Yes, I certainly would! If we needed to look at recruiting another HR apprentice, I would have no qualms about using Watson Martin at all.

Finally, what is your top tip to others thinking about starting an HR or L&D apprenticeship programme?

If it was for a similar sized business, my overriding advice would be to spend some time fully understanding the demands on your time of an apprenticeship programme.  An apprentice is only ever of benefit if you can give them the time they need.  The apprenticeship programme is not going to do it all for them. You have to play a big part so thinking an apprenticeship might be easier as you have someone doing the training doesn’t work.  You still must invest time into that person. I would do it all again but next time I will plan it better so I can spend more time with the apprentice at the start of the programme.

Inspired by Mark’s story? Find out how your business could benefit from an HR apprentice and contact one of Watson Martin’s specialist advisers today!