Growing North East-based Workwear Express is celebrating 13 years of apprenticeships with the promotion of its latest recruit.

The company is citing digital roles as the hottest topic for 2019 apprenticeships as it continues to expand its manufacturing business through online sales.

The firm, which recently invested £3.5 million in a new factory alongside its headquarters on the Belmont Industrial Estate in County Durham, currently has eight apprentices across the business and has plans to recruit more.

With a big focus on digital, Workwear Express, which makes more than two million items of workwear clothing a year, shipping to 96 countries, says it is looking for more apprentices from April, especially in sales and marketing, including social media, and maintains that the personal approach still works best.

Managing Director Andrew Ward built the company from scratch, selling work clothing out of the back of a van in 1990, hiring its first apprentice, who is now the firm’s general manager, 13 years ago. Talking about the importance of apprenticeships to the business he said: “The benefits of apprentices to a growing business like ours are huge, we’re essentially creating and moulding our own staff to meet both our current and future needs.

“Going forward, we would like at least one apprentice in every department at all times. In a few years’ time, we want to see more of our current apprentices going on to senior roles.”

On the firm’s commitment to taking on more apprentices in digital roles, he said: “Our website is our most valuable asset. It is crucial to drive customers there, but also to understand how they interact with our website. How easy is it to navigate? How smooth is the check-out process? Are we asking for too much information from our customers, or too little?

“It’s important that we up-skill our apprentices in this area so that we can continue to deliver a superior customer experience on our website.”

General Manager Simon Maw, who was the firm’s first ever apprentice, has first-hand experience of the benefits that an apprenticeship can bring: “When I started my career I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was originally looking for a plumbing course and had to do a maths test as part of the process. I was then asked if I had ever thought of being an accountant and training through the AAT.

“At the time, Workwear Express needed some support on the finance team. Andrew took an interest early on and invested a lot of time in me, it was a lot of learning on the job, which I found to be the best way for me.”

Speaking about how things have changed since then Simon went on to say: “Digital and social media are one of the hot topics for apprenticeships this year. The kids coming through can teach us a lot bit about all of these new things, and we can teach them too.

“You see young people with thousands and thousands of followers on Instagram, we know from experience that they can achieve great things with the proper training.

“Things have changed a lot, back then I didn’t fully understand what I was getting into. I just knew I needed a job. Now, there are a lot more choices in terms of the type of apprenticeships available. Many of the young people know where they want to go and who they want to be. It’s our job to help them get there.”

One such apprentice is nineteen-year old Jess Walker, the firm’s most recent recruit who has finished her apprenticeship and has just been promoted to Marketing Executive, working on marketing, digital and design projects in the six-strong in-house marketing team.

“I always knew that I didn’t want to go to university like all of my friends. I didn’t get a lot of help at college deciding on the route to go down. I knew I wanted to do something with design and marketing and approached a few businesses, some of which offered to take me on, but none of them felt quite the right fit for what I wanted to do.

“The team at Workwear Express were different, they sourced and tailored the apprenticeship to me; I got so much more than I thought I would.” says Jess who joined the team in 2017 after dropping her CV in to their offices.

“Online sales are very important to our business. I currently work on user-experience, looking at ways to improve the customer journey, making sure people can easily find what they need and increasing our conversion rate. It’s a lot of fun and I also get to work alongside the in-house graphic designer, so there is both digital and design work, which I love.”

Alongside her design and web skills Jess has also grown a lot through the hands-on, teamwork approach at the firm, “You don’t just sit behind a desk. I recently had to research a project and present it to management. The first time was a little daunting but everyone is so supportive and having access to the senior managers is not always something apprentices in other places get. I have gained so much confidence, I feel like I am in the right place.”

The woman with the responsibility for recruiting a talented and diverse workforce at Workwear Express, HR and Recruitment Manager Deborah Davies explains that, for the firm, the personal touch is still best: “We have three channels to apply through: traditional job adverts, through college or just dropping by in person with a CV. It is amazing to see young people in this age of digital communications still having the confidence to come in and meet us face to face. It goes a long way and is still the best approach in my book.

“I see the colleges regularly for a monthly catch up, and talk about how we can support our apprentices further or, if they’ve done particularly well, how we can praise them and boost their confidence there.”

“If I was to go to a recruitment event and needed to take an ambassador with me, I would be spoiled for choice. All of our apprentices are unique in their own ways, and they’re equally important to the business.”

Describing what it takes to be a success she went on to say: “It’s just about having a go at everything and not being afraid to take yourself out of your comfort zone and learn new things. Attitude and work ethic is the strongest quality you can have. It’s not all about exam results, you can balance that by working hard.

“We can teach you the knowledge and the skills, but you can’t be taught a good attitude.”