Charlie Mullins: I went from apprentice to running a multi-million-pound business, and others can too

The Pimlico Plumbers boss on why he believes in apprenticeships

I know how important apprenticeships are to the economy and young people. I started out as an apprentice myself and wouldn’t have got where I am today without it.

After dropping out of school at 15 with no hope and no qualifications, I embarked on a four-year plumbing apprenticeship and, I now own the UK’s largest independent plumbing company, which I built myself from the ground up.

Pimlico Plumbers currently has 20 apprentices at different stages of their apprenticeship in the business. Each one costs the company £15,000 – a cost that is completely justified because through our apprenticeship scheme we find and train the very best personalities for the job.

Sometimes I don’t think businesses realise the true value that apprenticeships can bring to a company or how to go about hiring an apprentice. I think this is because a lot of businesses have an outdated view of what apprenticeships are.

There are now a wide range of sectors that apprentices work in from business to law, and digital media companies. At Pimlico Plumbers, as well as plumbing apprentices, we have several apprentices working throughout the business in the HR, Accounting and PR departments too.

My early experiences as an apprentice shaped my life which is why I believe that today’s business leaders have a duty to bridge the skills gap and make apprenticeships mandatory.

This government has done a lot for apprenticeships and the number of businesses taking them up has increased by 86% since Labour were in charge.  This is great news, but the challenge this country faces is changing employees’ perception of what an apprenticeship is and their worth to a business.

Apprenticeships are essential to drive future talent into businesses. Skills shortages can be a serious threat to many areas of a business so by taking on apprentices you build solid foundations for the future and harness fresh talent, energy and ideas.

This not only means that you have constant pipeline of talent but that the apprentices are the right mould for your business. By building relationships from the ground up you can ensure that all your apprentices adopt your company’s ethos and carry out work in the manner you expect.

I understand that employers who haven’t offered apprenticeships before may be apprehensive about taking on an apprentice. This is natural but take it from me I can’t praise our apprentices enough. In all my years I’ve never met such a talented, eager and conscientious bunch.

I view apprentices as an investment in the business and I would take on 50 apprentices tomorrow if I could afford to. They bring so much energy and enthusiasm to the workplace. In fact, one of my proudest achievements was growing the business to a size where we could start taking on our own apprentices and we have expanded the scheme as we have grown over the years.

But as I’ve said, taking on an apprentice is an investment. As a business you need to decide whether you can afford the resources required to train someone; there might be an initial drop in productivity as a result, although this will be offset by future productivity. 

The government is doing more and more to help SMEs take on apprentices through the ‘Apprenticeship Grant for Employers’. This also simplifies the process of taking on apprentices and those eligible for the grant receive £1,500 for each apprentice.

This commitment from the government is a good start but it’s nowhere near enough to solve the ‘Skills Time Bomb’ which is why I’m urging businesses to consider taking on apprentices.

We need to change the way we fund the country’s apprenticeships if we’re going to get anywhere with solving problems our unemployment and skills gap. This is why I believe there should be a national apprenticeship scheme that funds employers to take on apprentices by converting the Job Seekers’ Allowance into a training allowance that is paid directly to the employers who take on apprentices.

This scheme will incentivise businesses to take on apprentices and provide a structured three-year training programme for young people leaving school, replacing the current patchwork of different schemes of differing lengths

It should be that if you haven’t got a job or a place at university when you leave school then you automatically go into an apprenticeship. It’s not complicated. It’s so frustrating because it is such a no-brainer. I am where I am today because of my apprenticeship. Of all the things I have done in my life that would be number one

David Cameron said at last year’s party conference that we need to offer young people an alternative to leaving education and going into a life supported by benefits. Germany is the perfect example of a successful apprentice system. They view apprentices as an extension of the education system. Every young person leaving school that doesn’t have a job or a place at university automatically gets put into an apprenticeship.

Our apprentices set a fine example to the young people today. So if you’re a business and are considering offering apprenticeships DO IT, it will be one of the best investments you could ever make!

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