Apprenticeships: what do employers need to know?

Rachel Wright explains the legal implications that businesses need to consider when taking on new apprentices

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In light of the government’s measures to refocus away from the university route, it has announced it will step up its efforts when it comes to apprenticeship. Some of these measures include plans to increase and extend incentive payments for employers in England that take on apprentices. It follows a marked drop in the number of intermediate apprenticeships since 2014/15, despite a government push on increasing quantity and improving access to them.

Now, with the number of apprenticeship applications set to rise, it’s worth taking stock of employer best practice and pitfalls that they need to be aware of.

What are apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships are offered to anyone over the age of 16 who is not in full-time education. Although they’re perceived to be offered to young people coming straight out of school, anyone at any stage in their career can start one, especially when looking to change jobs or upskill into a new position. Apprentices get to learn and train for a specific role, getting hands-on experience in a real job that aims to build their skills and knowledge of an industry. Apprenticeships can take between one and six years to complete, depending on the opportunity.

Although apprenticeships are funded by contributions made by the government and employers, businesses need to be careful to treat apprentices similarly to how they would treat normal employees.

What do I need to know as an employer?

On 1 August 2020, new standards came into effect that all employers need to consider when employing a person under an apprenticeship contract. The most fundamental change is that a contractual agreement with an apprentice needs to be treated as a contract of service not a contract of apprenticeship. This means an apprentice will have the same contract as a normal employee. 

Apprentices need to be given full information of their pay, working hours, holidays, and any other benefits they’re entitled to. They are also entitled to statutory maternity, paternity, adoption, shared parental and sick pay. 

Organisations can assess the performance of underperforming apprentices as they would any other employee in the business and dismiss as they would an ordinary member of staff.

What do employers need to look out for?

Although apprentices are entitled to the same rights and treatment as normal employees, there are nuances that organisations need to be aware of. Firstly, employers need to specifically outline the start and end dates of an apprentice’s contract, specifying the length of time of the contract, and outlining the exact standards the apprentice is working towards. Apprentices also need to be fully aware of how much time they will spend on the off-job training. Currently, a minimum of 20 per cent of an apprentice’s working hours needs to be dedicated to off-job training.

This is because some apprentices may be entitled to see out the remainder of their fixed contract. Some apprenticeship programmes in specific industries still have enhanced protection against termination so employers should take care to double-check these terms when considering a dismissal. Apprentices under the newer agreements and approved English apprenticeships do not have these enhanced protections against termination.

Employers should also avoid putting an upper age limit on applications as this could amount to age discrimination. There are some exceptions where an employer can argue that an age limit is justified, but this decision should not be made on assumption, and should follow consultation with an employment expert.

Taking on apprentices should be seen as a great opportunity to allow people to learn new skills and provide an alternative route to gaining employment into an industry. The best advice for employers is to treat apprentices with the same respect and due diligence they would a normal employee. By providing apprentices with all the information they need and being clear about the terms and requirements of their contracts, employers will be able to avoid any potential legal problems and provide new apprentices with the training they need to kick start their careers.

Rachel Wright is a trainee solicitor at BLM