A lack of clarity on the benefits and an over-complicated application process have been identified as the key barriers to increasing the number of apprentices taken on by small firms operating in the building and trades industry, new research has revealed.

The survey, commissioned by training specialist JTL, in partnership with The Enterprise Trust, received 1,004 responses, 578 of which came from the building services engineering sector. It found 92% of sole traders have never employed an apprentice and, of those, 47% of respondents working in the building services engineering sector had experience of hiring an apprentice, but only 23% currently employ an apprentice.

Respondents appeared to take on an apprentice for a mixture of business reasons and to encourage more of them to develop skills for life. For those who had employed an apprentice, 36% experienced satisfaction from giving a young person a career opportunity, although this was somewhat lower than the 51% who had expected this to be a benefit.

Interestingly, when asked if they were likely to employ another apprentice, those that already had an apprentice said they were far more likely to hire again next year.

With falling apprenticeship numbers over the past year, the research partnership aimed to investigate the main barriers to take up. In particular, it was seeking evidence to help them produce new advice, information and guidance for small and medium sized employers to encourage them to employ apprentices.

The additional information required by small businesses, before they were willing to consider recruiting an apprentice next year, was well defined. 61% wanted the costs and funding clearly explained. 52% wanted to know what support is available to them if they decided to recruit. 33% showed concern around the time commitment involved and needed a clearer understanding of how much time is spent in training ‘off the job’ – in college or a training centre. 28% of small employers needed to know how long an apprenticeship takes, to help decide if they could commit to the necessary period of time involved in training an apprentice.

Only 21% of employers working in the building services engineering sector indicated that they would not need any additional support if they were going to recruit a new apprentice. 33% of respondents suggested that face to face meetings with a dedicated assessor would be helpful, while 32% thought a support line offering help with apprenticeship related queries would make sense. 31% wanted an online platform to help monitor their apprentices progress and 27% wanted help with apprentice selection. 16% said they would value help with interviewing apprenticeship candidates.

Employers in the building services engineering sector appeared to utilise apprentices within their workforce more than other companies that took part in the research. They appear to experience many positive business benefits as a result, and the altruistic benefits of developing a young person’s career should also not be under estimated.

Jon Graham, Chief Executive of JTL, said: “As a result of this research, we have a much clearer view of the information we need to prepare and share with potential employers and the way in which we need to communicate with them. There are a number of perceptions out there that are simply wrong or based on a lack of understanding of important facts in relation to recruiting apprentices and the apprenticeship scheme as a whole. We have to address these – in particular with regard to the funding issues.

"It’s interesting that those who are already employing apprentices are more likely to recruit again. We have to consider finding a better way to support existing employers who recognise the benefits and clearly value apprenticeships to communicate those positives to fellow employers who are falling prey to the perceptions that so many have indicated to us through this research."