By Anne Kiem, Executive Director Small Business Charter and Chief Executive of the Chartered Association of Business Schools

Since 2015, degree apprenticeships have been a key part of the UK's skills strategy, enabling students to attain a full bachelor's or master's degree, by combining work with part-time study. All without the financial burden of tuition fees.

These types of apprenticeships - which are available to people already in work, as much as younger students - help to open up opportunities to people at all stages of their career and boost skills across the nation.

So how can small businesses benefit?

Small firms are huge champions of apprenticeships.  But it's not always clear how they can benefit from taking on degree apprentices from their local business schools, or offering them to current staff.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, nine out of ten apprenticeships for 16- to 24-year-olds are offered by small firms. However, at Level 6 or 7, the equivalent of a degree or Master's, the proportion engaged in a small business falls to only 4 per cent.

Offering degree apprenticeships enables SMEs to attract talent and benefit from high quality training that supports their business to be more effective and to grow. It can be a useful way to help to bridge the skills gaps, which is a key challenge for many small businesses.

All the evidence shows that If SMEs focused on developing good management and leadership skills and practices, they could increase productivity, turnover and employment. The existence of degree apprenticeships in management can be enormously advantageous in upskilling existing staff or bringing in new employees who develop these vital attributes.

Specialist skills

Degree apprenticeships can also be a great route to cultivate specialist skills in areas like technology. For example, Bliss a growing digital agency, worked with  Manchester Metropolitan University to take on an apprentice with a focused technical skillset in an important area for its  business.

While originally concerned about its capacity to support an apprentice, Bliss found the experience to be very valuable and is continuing its apprenticeship scheme as an important way to grow new talent within its own business and in the wider sector.

What funding is available?

Understandably, many small businesses also have concerns about the money involved in offering an apprenticeship. While more could be done to make this easier for small businesses, there are cost-effective routes available.

The Apprenticeship Levy, which came in to play in April 2017, is directed at larger employers which use their levy contributions to fund staff through these programmes.

While small businesses do not pay the levy, they can still take on an apprentice, or offer this to an existing member of staff, if they pay for five per cent of training costs. The government will then cover the remaining 95 per cent, up to the funding band maximum.

Alternatively, SMEs can also draw upon a proportion of a ‘levy pot' passed on by a bigger business, such as a supply chain partner.

While small businesses need to carefully examine where their skills gaps are and plan a focused talent development strategy, degree apprenticeships should definitely be in the mix as a fantastic, lesser-known and cost effective solution to support growth.