How can apprenticeships future-proof the region’s small businesses?

Richard Bridgman, chairman of Warren Services, with four of the company's apprentices

Richard Bridgman, chairman of Thetford-based Warren Services, with four of the company's apprentices - Credit: Warren Services

Despite the importance of apprenticeships in upskilling the UK workforce, many SMEs continue to treat them with scepticism. However, with government funding available for apprenticeships, is it time you considered their value to your business?  

We spoke to three regional businesses who have invested in apprenticeships and reaped the rewards.  

Warren Services  

Thetford-based engineering firm Warren Services has offered apprenticeships since it was founded by chairman Richard Bridgman and his wife Sharon in 1990.  

“The local area wasn't awash with engineers at the time,” said Richard, who was awarded an OBE for services to the training of young people in 2018.  “When we did advertise for engineers, we'd only get people the same age as me, so straightaway there was a need – and I knew what that need was because I'm an apprentice myself.”  

Approximately 25% of the company's current workforce are either apprentices or former apprentices. Last year, it was named a Gold member of The 5% Club, which recognises the UK’s leading employers of apprentices, graduates and degree placement students.  

Apprentices at Warren Services are able to earn as they learn – with one study day a week at West Suffolk College and the remainder spent gaining work experience and a good wage. “Our apprentices are always paid above the national minimum wage,” said Richard. 

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Unlike a university degree, an apprenticeship with Warren Services guarantees young people a job upon completion – and the company gets a fully-qualified engineer who already understands the business inside out. “We wouldn't be where we are now without apprenticeships,” said Richard.

Richard Gapper (left), managing director of Bison Electrical, with former apprentice Kyle Funnell

Richard Gapper (left), managing director of Bison Electrical, with former apprentice Kyle Funnell - Credit: Bison Electrical

Bison Electrical 

Bison Electrical took on its first apprentice in 2017. The Lowestoft-based firm now has four apprentices who are due to complete their training in June, with another three starting in September.  

“I'm so passionate about apprenticeships and trying to upskill people,” said managing director Richard Gapper. “I have also been through an apprenticeship myself because that's the main route to becoming a fully qualified electrician.”  

Richard says the business gets as much value from its apprentices as they get back from the company. “It's really nice to be able to teach people – and you get quite a lot of loyalty from young people as well,” he said. “They want to learn about the company and the way it does things, and you ultimately end up with somebody who is fully-qualified and already fits into your business.” 

He sympathises with other small businesses that are reluctant to take on apprentices, but believes the benefits outweigh the risks. “My advice to other SMEs would be to take the leap,” he said. “It’s a long-term investment into the people in your business, and into the sustainability of your business.” 

Medicines 4 U  

Medicines 4 U is a chain of community pharmacies located across East Anglia, predominantly in Cambridgeshire. The business worked with Waterbeach-based Qube Learning to place an apprentice in each of its seven pharmacies – with the government contributing £3,000 per apprentice. “It's absolutely revolutionised our business,” said director Anil Sharma. 

Every apprentice attains both an NVQ Level 2 in Retail Skills and an NVQ Level 2 in Pharmacy Service Skills, which teaches them how to sell and dispense prescription medicines safely. “We’ve generally given jobs to most of the apprentices we've taken on,” said Anil. “So, they get a job and they also get two qualifications.”  

Anil believes taking on apprentices is more rewarding in the long-term than employing somebody with experience who may be used to working in a different way. “It takes time to train them, but they’re also a blank canvas, which means we can train and mould them the way we want,” he said. 

In many cases, apprentices will also have existing skills that are valuable to a business. This was important for Medicines 4 U, as it needed people who were already familiar with mobile apps and software systems. “Young people have grown up with those skills,” said Anil. “It means they can teach them to the older generation, and we can then teach them the skills of customer service, retail, dispensing prescriptions, and things like that.” 

For more information on apprenticeships and how they could work for your business, visit or call 0300 333 6536.