It's difficult to talk about apprentices without conjuring up the stereotypical image of a spotty school drop-out dragging his heels as a seasoned mechanic or plumber attempts to pass on the secrets of their trade.

But times are changing and apprenticeships are no longer deemed to be the poor relation of the university degree. Far from it. In fact, they are much sought after in an array of businesses throughout the UK and there are plenty of bright sparks looking to get involved.

A host of speakers, including the face of the Learning and Skills Council's latest Apprenticeships ad campaign Sir Alan Sugar, told employers what they were missing out on at a day of seminars at London Excel organised for National Apprenticeship Week (February 23-27).

As Sugar says: "There's no point in drumming up people's interest in becoming apprentices if employers don't know why they should be doing it." C-Store wholeheartedly agrees, so we've done the hard work for you. Over the page a range of experts explain what apprentices can do for convenience retailers and how you can take advantage.

When should you invest in someone?

Kishor Patel says: "If someone has been at your store for a few months and is keen to learn more about the business as a whole, rather than just the specific task that they are doing, then you can see that they'll be a good investment.

"Over the next few months, I'll take on at least three apprentices."

Kishor Patel, owner of eight Nisa stores

How can a c-store apprenticeship scheme compete with the multiples?

Theo Paphitis says: "When someone works in a big supermarket, they can be limited to a small area, but a c-store offers employees much more flexibility. When I worked in a small store I did everything from cashing up, window displays, and putting up point of sale to stacking shelves and meeting customers. With all due respect to supermarkets, you'll never get that kind of experience working for one.

"Admittedly, there's always a danger that people can treat your business like a stepping stone and abandon you to work in a multiple once they are qualified. Remember: not everyone can be a flower in your garden - that's just how life is. But if you've done the training properly, then the majority of apprentices will stay as they will want your business to flourish."

Theo Paphitis, business tycoon and Dragons' Den star

Are other retailers in support of apprentices?

Hayley Tatum says: "At Tesco, we've been working with the apprenticeships programme for five years. The schemes are low cost and without doubt add value to the business.

"We've designed our schemes ourselves with support from training and qualifications organisation City & Guilds.

"The key thing that all our apprentices have said they have got from our programme is confidence. It has given them a unique opportunity to try new activities on the job that they wouldn't have done before and they've surprised themselves.

"In the current climate, delivering good investment is important. As a result of the apprenticeships we've had better retention and, of the 2007 intake, many have already been promoted.

"The programme requires candidates to multi-skill around the store, giving us a flexible supply of skilled talent. As customer demands change during the credit crunch we need that kind of flexibility."

Hayley Tatum, Tesco UK operations personnel director

What can an apprentice bring to my business?

Sir Alan Sugar says: "Apprenticeships are about investing in someone so that they can play a part in your business. This is an opportunity to mould someone into your company's culture and it's up to you to praise them and create an atmosphere to make them feel comfortable. You need people to feel proud about what they do so that there is loyalty to the business.

"Be under no illusion that there is no investment required on the behalf of the employer. You have to invest time teaching that person how you want them to be.

"But the recruitment of an apprentice is not charitable - it should be thought of in terms of whether it is a good investment."

Sir Alan Sugar, business entrepreneur

When is the right time to get involved?

Simon Blower says: "Now is the time to invest. There is a stream of funding available to train your people for when better times come. The very strongest organisations are those that are investing now so they can readily take advantage when the upturn comes around.

"People think apprenticeships aren't relevant to businesses as they're craft-based, but that's not the case any more. NVQs do have a problem with reputation, but that's changing once people see the benefits of the programme.

"It's no good claiming that you're not sure if the apprenticeship schemes work. When you look at a group of leading retailers using this programme, you can see that it does work. Embedding this sort of programme within your business can make a real difference. Just ask your employees how much they value qualifications.

"Apprentices are more productive and more loyal and more motivated than your average employee."

Simon Blower, Skillsmart employer engagement director
The Basics
Apprentices are employees who work at your store to gain job-specific skills. They are also given day release to train with a local college or other training provider.

On the job, apprentices will aim to attain a work-based qualification such as a National Vocation Qualification. Off the job, apprentices will work towards

a technical qualification such as a BTEC. Both qualifications are usually at Levels

2 or 3.

Source: Learning and Skills Council

The Cost

You pay your apprentice a salary that reflects their skills, experience, age and ability. The minimum salary that can be paid to an apprentice is £80 per week, a figure that will rise to £95 in August.

Source: Learning and Skills Council
The Facts
77% of employers believe apprenticeships make them more competitive

76% say that apprenticeships provide higher overall productivity

80% feel that apprenticeships reduce staff turnover

Source: Learning and Skills Council