Mentoring apprentices in a small business

Apprenticemakers is SFEDI’s support project for businesses interested in apprenticeships. The project has recently launched a ‘Developing Mentoring Skills To Support Apprentices’ course for apprentice employers of all sizes. Here Apprenticemakers talks about how mentoring can support an apprentice in a small business and the areas to consider if you’re interested in doing so.

Recruiting an apprentice in a small business can be a great opportunity. The right apprentice will quickly add value as an extra pair of hands, and once they’re into their apprenticeship learning, they bring their new-found knowledge to the business too. It’s often not long before businesses start to wonder how they managed before their enthusiastic apprentice joined the team.

However, as with all positive changes to a business there is an investment to make. Financially it’s relatively small compared to recruiting another employee (an apprentice’s wage starts at £3.40 an hour), and the funding for training is particularly generous for SMEs, with often 100% of the training costs covered*.

‘Support’ is next in line in the investment stakes, and often that’s the area businesses struggle with most due to lack of time and resources. However, if a business can get that right, it can be what really make a difference to the contribution an apprentice makes, and how soon they make it.

So what’s the best way to offer that support? Especially when time is tight for small business owners.

Well firstly, if the business finds the right training provider, (ideas of how to do this on Apprenticemakers), much of the battle will be won. A good training provider will help both the apprentice and the business with the apprenticeship requirements in those crucial early stages, and will be an ongoing source of support throughout the apprenticeship too.

Secondly, the business can consider ways to offer mentoring support to the apprentice. Even making the decision to support with mentoring is a positive one, it shows that the business cares how the apprentice feels, and wants to support them to achieve their work and learning goals.

So how can a business owner, with many pressures of their own, plan mentoring support that really adds value to the apprenticeship? Here are a few areas to consider if you’re interested in offering mentoring support in a meaningful and measurable way.


1. Decide what you want to achieve

At its simplest, mentoring provides an opportunity for an individual to be listened to by a trusted ally. However, even though mentoring requires soft skills, it doesn’t mean that a mentoring programme shouldn’t have tangible goals that can help you look back in 6 months and make a judgement on whether it’s been a worthwhile exercise. So before embarking on a mentoring activity in your business, decide why you’re doing it and what success might look like.

Some ideas for measuring success might be:

  • Improved retention rates – have you had apprentices before that have left the business? Measure if mentoring improves retention of new apprentices
  • Speed at which the apprentice can undertake key activities – is it important for the apprentice to be able to achieve certain tasks to add value to the business? How quickly can these be achieved, has the mentoring supported this?


2. Decide who should do the mentoring

Many businesses are just too small for there to be anyone else other than the business owner available to mentor an incoming apprentice. However, it’s worth identifying whether that really is the only option. Could an ex-apprentice, now employee, develop mentoring skills and support them? Or is there someone that is experienced, but not working directly with the apprentice that could take this role? Delegating the role can not only be a useful stepping stone to developing management skills but it can help to free the business owner up too. Mentoring support, if done right, can be a mutually beneficial learning experience, so it’s a great way to boost morale and skills throughout.

If, however it is only you, as the business owner, that can do the mentoring, consider how you will conduct this role in relation to your other roles as line manager and director. A good mentoring relationship is based on trust and openness, so if you are able to maintain the trust in all interactions with the apprentice, leading the way when required, but also supporting and listening when necessary too, it could be possible to wear both hats.


3. Develop the mentoring skills that matter

One of the most valuable assets in a small business is an employee with the initiative and resourcefulness to solve daily issues. Great mentoring is about helping to bring out the apprentice’s inner resourcefulness and supporting them as they become accountable for their role and career.

It very useful for the mentor to have personal and professional experience and knowledge to draw on, however most important of all are listening and questioning skills which can help the apprentice devise new or more effective ways to approach problems and challenges. A mentor can help the apprentice reflect on recent work challenges and consider the learning outcomes and goals that came out of it which may help them approach things differently next time.
Great questions to ask to develop resourcefulness are, “if you had to find a way, what would it be?’, and ‘what would you do if you couldn’t fail?’. Asking these in a mentoring session can be incredibly empowering for the apprentice.


4. Gather some templates to support the mentoring

Even if it’s a small mentoring scheme, create some structure around it to clarify its purpose and record the outcomes. This ensures that both parties take it seriously and prevents mentoring meetings slipping into a ‘quick catch up’ that is more tactical than long term.
Useful documents to put in place include:

  • A mentoring ‘code of conduct’ – which helps both parties understand the boundaries of the role in terms of confidentiality, knowledge and expectations.
  • A Continuous Professional Development (CPD) Plan – this can help both the mentor and apprentice consider and record their own development needs and plan how they will address them. It asks questions such as; What do you need to learn? What impact will this have? How will you learn it?
  • A mentoring session sheet – to record the outcomes of the meeting discussion and actions. Filing these together can be a great way to record the apprentice’s progress and assess if the mentoring programme has achieved its goals.


5. Get more ideas and support for your mentoring programme

Apprenticemakers is running a free webinar on the 16th February for businesses interested in learning more about mentoring skills to support apprentices. Apprenticemakers also runs a one day mentor training course.

*Training is currently funded from 50-100% depending on the apprentice’s age and the apprenticeship. Apprenticeships funding is changing from May 2017 with still high level of support for SMEs.

To learn more about apprenticeships, upcoming funding changes, and how to support apprentices in the workplace, join the Apprenticemakers community for free at