Training apprentices: do small firms do it better?

Dan Bishop, Lecturer in Employment Studies at the School, challenges the ‘large firm’ paradigm on which apprenticeship-oriented politics has conventionally been based

Apprenticeships and small businesses have been enjoying something of a renaissance within contemporary political discourse. With small firms now employing more than half of the UK’s private sector workforce, they have been described by the current coalition government as the economic recovery’s “engine for growth”. The same government has also expressed a renewed interest in apprenticeships as a pillar of their proclaimed vision of a skills-led recovery. One of Vince Cable’s first acts when becoming Business Secretary in 2010 was to announce a £250 million increase in public funding for apprenticeships. £100 million of this was earmarked specifically for apprenticeship training in small firms.

Despite such evident importance within today’s mainstream political projects, however, small firms tend to lack the infrastructure prescribed within conventional ‘good practice’ training models. Without the requisite training functions, monetary resources and managerial protocols (e.g. training budgets, plans, monitoring systems, etc.), they consistently provide much lower levels of training activity than larger firms. So how, if at all, do small firms support the workforce along the ‘high-skill recovery’ road? Previous researchers have emphasised the crucial and sustained role given to informal learning within small firms – and this despite attempts by successive governments to prioritise formal training schemes such as Labour’s flagship ‘Train to Gain’ programme – but robust comparative research remains very much in order.

To date, no study has systematically compared how skills are formed by apprentices in firms of different sizes. That is to say, we still don’t really know whether apprentices in small firms are disadvantaged by the less formal working and learning environment they inhabit, or conversely, whether the relative lack of bureaucracy surrounding training actually affords them greater freedom to develop in personally desirable directions. While my on-going British Academy-funded research encompasses organisations in a wide variety of business sectors, this post briefly compares the experiences of mechanical engineering apprentices within differently sized firms: ‘TinyCo’, which employs 8 people, including one apprentice; ‘SmallCo’, which employs 45 people with two apprentices; and ‘MegaCo’, which employs 317 people with 12 apprentices. In each case, apprentices were interviewed about their working and learning experiences while managers were also interviewed for the sake of broadening the overview.

‘MegaCo’, the largest of the three firms I studied, uses its greater resources to provide a highly structured and formalised apprenticeship environment by creating a dedicated training centre where apprentices spend the whole of their first year on ‘training projects’. This facility was managed by a full-time apprenticeship supervisor and ensured each apprentice experienced a highly standardised process that drove their development according to a pre-defined training structure in which the learners had little contributing stake. ‘MegaCo’ therefore enjoyed a high degree of certainty and control over its apprentice’s skills by allowing them little room to exercise their agency in the pursuit of their own individual learning goals.

‘TinyCo’, at the other end of the scale, treated its one apprentice, ‘Patrick’, much like any other employee would have been treated. There was no dedicated training centre in which he could learn while shielded from the shop-floor, rather, he was immediately exposed to the real production processes and expected to ‘hit the ground running’. Other than being given day release to attend college once a week, his learning was driven not by the guiding hand of a dedicated training supervisor (though the firm’s managing director did provide a minimal developmental framework), but by his own expressed preferences for aspects of the production process. Initially, he lacked the confidence to voice these preferences so had to make do with the tasks which came his way. As his experience developed so too did his confidence to request exposure to different work tasks, something which his managers were happy to support.

In terms of how apprenticeships are delivered, size does indeed matter. Nevertheless, while bigger means more structure and more resource, it does not necessarily mean more effectiveness; the ‘large firm’ approach is not necessarily the best. Apprentices in small firms seem more likely to experience a less formal, less structured training process. This is not necessarily disadvantageous when compared to the standardised approaches prevalent within larger organisations. The quality of the learning experience is co-produced between what the organisation provides and what the individual brings. If the individual has the inclination and confidence to exercise their learning preferences, they will probably find more space to do so in the smaller firm. This must lead us to question the applicability of ‘best practice’ models of training and development conventionally derived from the large firm paradigm; bigger does not always mean better.

I’ll be presenting more of my initial findings at the forthcoming Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship conference (Manchester, 5th-6th November). I’m also happy to discuss the project further here or over email

Originally published at

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