Rugby-based Smart Assessor is a business that takes Apprenticeships very seriously. In fact, apprentices and other learners are the business as Smart Assessor supplies electronic portfolios to enable better teaching, learning and assessment. Perhaps this should come as no surprise as the business’s founder, Fiona Hudson-Kelly, began her own working life as an apprentice:
“At 16 I was a commercial apprentice at Rolls Royce. My first mentor was the human resources manager and I owe a lot to her. It was a fantastic way of getting qualifications and earning money at the same time as learning. I was determined that Apprenticeships would be the route we’d take for most of our employees and it’s worked out really well.”
Smart Assessor’s clients are other businesses, large independent training providers and colleges. The majority of these organisations are dealing with upwards of 500 learners so it’s essential that Smart Assessor’s service, which is hosted on the cloud, is reliable and efficient.
Set up just three years ago from a backroom in Fiona’s house, Smart Assessor’s current staff number just under 30, with an average age of only 22. The majority of these people are former apprentices and the business has already been recognised for its skill in running successful Apprenticeships. Last year, the National Apprenticeship Service awarded Smart Assessor the Apprenticeship Award in its Small Employer category for the West Midlands.
A lot of Smart Assessor’s technical work is outsourced so much of the in-house activity is concerned with sales, marketing and customer services. These are the subjects the Smart Assessor apprentices themselves undertake, gaining a broad scope of experience, as Fiona explains:
“Our apprentices learn a good range of generic business skills. So, whilst they’re fine-tuned for our specific business needs, those skills are definitely transferrable.”
When it came to the legalities and practicalities of running Apprenticeships, Smart Assessor had an existing understanding. Because the business already operates in the market, Fiona and her team enjoyed a real head start:
“We already had an overview of Apprenticeships because we deliver software to this marketplace. So we’re very aware of funding rules, regulations, employers’ rights and responsibilities…that kind of thing. Although we were aware of it our training provider partners also explained all of that to us. ”
Smart Assessor’s training providers are Learn Direct and South Staffordshire College. In part because of the high volume of Apprenticeships Smart Assessor runs, the training providers have become an integral part of the business, taking a lead in recruitment via the National Apprenticeship Service’s vacancies site. This involvement is something Fiona values:
“Working collaboratively with the training provider is key. As a small employer we don’t have the time or expertise to go out and look for apprentices or recruit them. Especially in the early days, we looked for a lot of support from the training provider. It’s a true partnership.”
However, when Smart Assessor recruited their very first apprentice, neither training organisation was involved. That young man has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the company’s ranks, illustrating the potential of Apprenticeships to propel careers forward:
“Our very first apprentice, Aaron Gleeson, came to us almost by chance. He now is one of our shareholders and our IT director, so he’s been a real leading force, a trailblazer for the Apprenticeship model. Aaron’s 22.”
At Smart Assessor, Apprenticeships take between 12 and 18 months. This time period is flexible to meet each learner’s pace. Fiona promotes a culture of lifelong personal development across the business and has herself recently enrolled on an MBA. Asked what she looks for in her apprentices, Fiona responds:
“A thirst for learning, for knowledge and a desire to get on. Plus a commitment to the job, so arriving for work on time, suitably presented, with the right attitude – that’s really important. Quite often, our apprentices aren’t academic highfliers but they’ve got a fantastic work ethic.”
At Smart Assessor, a business less than four years old, the proof of the Apprenticeship model’s impact is written in the bottom line, as Fiona tells us:
“We’ve grown exponentially. This year’s turnover is over £1 million and we’re on track to double that again next year so it’s a hugely successful business. A lot of that has been down to the fact that we’ve got very young workers who are very agile and adaptable.”