Small Talk: Not as seen on TV – it's the right type of apprentice making a welcome return


Lord Sugar's show may make good television but it hasn't been the best advertisement for the concept of apprenticeship. Not many businesses are keen to take on grasping staff whose very purpose in life is to do down their colleagues, rather than to acquire the new skills that decent apprenticeships offer.

The good news is that in the real world, the right type of apprenticeship is making a comeback. With unemployment still climbing – and youth joblessness is a particularly acute problem – the Government is making a genuine effort to boost the number of apprenticeships available. It wants 100,000 additional places on offer by 2014.

Small and medium enterprises could get us almost halfway to that total thanks to a new scheme that opened for business last week. It offers SMEs – defined as businesses with fewer than 250 employees – a £1,500 grant for each new 16-to-24 year-old apprentice they take on.

The scheme, to be administered by the National Apprenticeship Service (, has £60m of funding behind it to begin with, enough for 40,000 SME places. The grant is paid in addition to funding for training costs, which all employers are entitled to reclaim at least partially when employing apprentices aged 24 or younger.

It's not a bad start, particularly since SMEs have, in a series of business surveys, expressed more caution about taking on new staff this year than their larger counterparts. Though no one wants to see companies hiring on the cheap, it's clear that employing apprentices as your business expands is a more affordable option. Not only is government funding available, but also the minimum wage for apprentices is lower.

The Department of Business appears to be genuine in its efforts to persuade and enable more SMEs to take on apprentices. It has also just announced the appointment of Jason Holt to run a three-month inquiry into how to help smaller employers make more use of apprenticeship schemes.

While there will be some cynicism about the launch of yet another government taskforce, Mr Holt is well-qualified for the job. He runs his own jewellery firm but has also set up a training academy that helps apprentices acquire manufacturing skills. And he has at least been asked to report back quickly.

There are a number of challenges to address, for while the additional funding for SMEs taking on apprentices is welcome, there have been complaints about the bureaucracy involved in such schemes.

Some of the red tape is already being cut – SMEs will in future be able to advertise apprenticeship vacancies for only one month, for example, and face fewer health and safety requirements over and above their statutory duties. Plenty more work is to be done, however – including the launch of a specialist SME team at the National Apprenticeship Service itself.

SSM's cartoon caper with risk attached

Sports Stars Media is misleadingly named, since it really has only one sports star on its books. Step forward José Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager now plying his trade at Real Madrid.

The company, which had its debut on the Alternative Investment Market last Wednesday, makes cartoon programmes and has an exclusive agreement with Mourinho to make a new show aimed at six-to-12-year-olds – "Mourinho and the Special Ones". We'll spare you the detail of the plot but it's only fair to point out that the management of SSM does have a track record of success, having invented Gombby, a popular animated television series in Portugal. It intends to live off the revenues generated by this show while it develops its new idea.

As Andrew Noone, an analyst at Growth Equities & Company Research, says, this is an industry with "considerable merchandising potential". More established companies in the field, such as Entertainment One and HIT Entertainment, have attracted generous valuations. Still, this is a start-up with considerable risks. Not least, as Noone points out, any "deterioration in the reputation of Mourinho could impact the brand reputation".

Aurelian standstill but an upside is flagged

Spare a thought for Aurelian Oil & Gas, which hasn't had much credit for the very open strategic review it launched following a pretty disastrous 2011.

On 1 February, the exploration company, whose main asset is a Siekierki, a Polish gas resource, said it had concluded the venture does have significant potential, and pointed out that it has €63m of cash to keep it going while it works on exploiting that potential. It also invited buyers to register an interest for the company. Since then, nothing. There's little sign of a buyer and the shares have barely moved, trading sideways at around 16p (last year's high, to put that in context, was 92p).

Now analysts at Seymour Pierce and Finncap have separately published notes suggesting that the Alternative Investment Market-listed company is significantly undervalued. Neither analyst has much insight to offer on takeover prospects, but both think there's plenty of upside in the shares.

Small Businessman of the Week: The world on a plate as boys at the bakery eye new horizons

Gary Frank, chief executive, The Fabulous Bakin' Boys

Five months ago, we won a small business competition, for which the prize was a trip to Hong Kong. We met small businessmen there who had started out at about the same time as us [1997] and from day one had viewed their market as the world.

Suddenly, the penny dropped for us: we hadn't really thought about exports until then, but there's a whole world out there full of people who will like our products as much as people in the UK do. We decided to go for it – our first business was gained in Southern Ireland and that is our thinking, to start with places with the closest affinity to the UK.

We've just signed a contract with a wholesaler in Holland, and we're also looking at Scandinavia and Belgium. For us, it really has been a question of cold calling the major retailers in these markets and telling them about what we do – my advice would be that if you have a good proposition, then you've got a chance.

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