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Hiring an apprentice: A start-up guide

Tuesday, 26 February 2013 | By Michelle Hammond

feature-apprentice-thumbApprentices are no longer exclusive to big businesses in traditional industries. On the contrary, an apprentice can be a valuable asset to any business, particularly if you’re a start-up.

 

“Apprentices in the start-up context bring a lot of things to the business,” says Ned Dwyer, whose business Tweaky.com recently launched a program dubbed the Founders Apprentice.

 

“They bring a lot of energy and a willingness to do a lot of varied roles.

 

“They’re looking for experience and learning across multiple disciplines, which, in a start-up environment, is critical with our limited resources.”

 

That’s not to say big companies no longer see the value in apprenticeships. Last month, Bakers Delight announced a plan to offer 1,000 apprenticeships in 2013.

 

“Apprentices help build depth to our existing talent pool of skilled technicians. They also bring fresh eyes and energy to the business,” group development manager Gabby Kelly says.

 

Meanwhile, small businesses in the building and construction industries have been encouraged to take advantage of the federal government’s Kickstart program.

 

This initiative, launched late last year, rewards employers with an additional $3,350 for taking on a new apprentice.

 

Offering an apprenticeship could be one of the most rewarding things you do, not only from a business perspective but from a personal perspective as well.

 

However, it’s important to ensure the apprentice you hire is the right one, so StartupSmart has outlined everything you need to know.

 

What should you be looking for in an apprentice?

 

When Dwyer announced he was looking for a founder’s apprentice, it didn’t take long for him to select Ivan Lim, founder of Vinspi and a graduate of the 2012 AngelCube program.

 

Dwyer says he has a very clear idea of what he wants in an apprentice.

 

“As a start-up, we’re looking for someone with great potential,” he says.

 

“The signs we’re looking for are someone with a clear idea of the direction they’re going in. For instance, they know that in a few years’ time they want to be running a start-up of their own or working as a web developer.

 

“They’ve also taken steps to get there on their own, including building up their professional networks, working on projects in their own time and… writing about their experience online.”

 

Kelly believes commitment and punctuality, in addition to a great attitude, are also important.

 

“Creative flair and manual dexterity can also be beneficial,” she says.

 

Why not just hire an intern?

 

“I’m personally not in favour of traditional internships,” Dwyer says.

 

“I think that it’s too easy to provide an intern with low-value work because there is no cost to the employer.

 

“An apprenticeship, however, puts some of the onus on the employer and creates a financial incentive for them to make the most out of the relationship.

 

“The simple fact of an apprentice taking a wage will ensure the individual is more attentive to the needs of the organisation.”

 

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What does it take to manage an apprentice?

 

Dwyer says managing an apprenticeship program should take a minimum of one hour per day, although it could take longer initially, However, he is wary of structured training.

 

“I would suggest that the traditional model of an apprenticeship with structured learning and government assistance is too complicated for most start-ups,” he says.

 

“When your focus is still on achieving product-market fit, you often don’t have the bandwidth to be able to support the learning of someone fresh out of the education system.

 

“With that said, I think a more casual approach to apprenticeships… can lead to identifying great up-and-coming talent that would otherwise not be drawn into the world of tech start-ups.

 

“Our approach is to give the apprentice the tools they need and point them in the right direction to allow them to learn at their own pace.

 

“But tight feedback loops are important to increasing their performance. It’s about creating the right environment.”

 

Cara Seymour, a senior associate at People + Culture Strategies, which specialises in people management and workplace law, says some employers see apprentices as “a bit of a burden”.

 

“I don’t think it needs to be that way,” she says.

 

Instead, Seymour says employers should regard an apprenticeship as a partnership.

 

“It’s a partnership for the apprentice, the registered training organisation and state training service, and the employee,” she says.

 

“It’s important to see it that way because, at the end of the day, an apprentice needs to be someone who is going to fit within their business.

 

“Also, make sure you have everything in place before the apprenticeship starts.

 

“Make sure you review the training plan, and ensure the training is appropriate to that person’s skills and knowledge… Ensure they have a wide range of tasks they’re required to do so they do develop all the relevant competencies.”

 

What about the legal requirements?

 

“The first thing is to remember they are employees,” Seymour says.

 

“If your business engages an apprentice, you need to treat them as an employee and meet all the requirements that go with employer obligations.

 

“You have to comply with employment legislation, and any relevant industry awards or arrangements… [This includes] PAYG withholding tax, super, fringe benefits tax, workplace law, the Fair Work Act, anti-discrimination laws, workers compensation, and workplace safety.

 

“You need to pay at the appropriate level, and check whether you’re entitled to any government entitlements.

 

“There’s a lot of recordkeeping requirements – approval letter, training contract, time worked and wages, etc.”

 

Each training contract will specify the duration of the apprenticeship, Seymour says, but the default length is usually three to four years.

 

“[Employers] need to ensure the training contract’s in place and signed by both themselves and the apprentice, and also approved by the state training services body,” she says.

 

“If you make a change to the arrangement, notify the training organisation.”

 

Seymour says certain industries also have pre-employment requirements, which apply to apprentices in the same way they apply to any other worker.

 

“In the security industry, forklift licences or various other licences might be required,” she says.

 

“There could be background checks as well, if they’re working with children, and certain age limits apply [in some industries] – liquor and gaming would be an obvious one.”

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