Recruiting and keeping apprentices!

It’s not just about recruiting more apprentices – it’s about keeping them engaged in the job

Apprenticeship targets and funding has been a huge focus for employers and the media recently. Yet there’s little discussion of the need to support and mentor those young apprentices so they stay in work.

I’m passionate about apprenticeship schemes. As well as providing young people with vital skills and qualifications, they help employers develop and raise standards. Ever since the government announced its target of 3m apprentices by 2020 I’ve worked tirelessly in support.  But now – a few years and many apprentice placements later – I’m aware there is still much to do.

It’s not enough simply to hit a target.  That’s the easy part.  Much harder is the day to day slog of keeping those young apprentices engaged and on task, especially the more vulnerable ones.

It’s a sad fact of life in Britain today that many of our young people lead chaotic lives and may not live in supportive family structures. Others simply lack some of the ‘soft skills’ which make a person employable, such as knowledge of communication, teamwork and commercial awareness. Some will have been disaffected at school.

Like many other teachers, I am proud to say I have never given up on anybody in all my years working in education. In order to be receptive to learning and able to achieve, students need to have a level of self-esteem – help them get that and you are half way there.

It’s the same when these youngsters move into employment via apprenticeship schemes. They are new to the work place and need continuing support as they come to terms with the reality of a working life, where generally no allowance is made for the fact they may be tired or have difficulties at home.

Schools which are successful in re-engaging pupils generally share a commitment to reaching out and developing supportive strategies. The same should go for apprentices. Employers have a duty to provide a ‘corporate family’, particularly where there is no suitable support.

This will involve offering practical help on occasion – we’ve given our apprentices a lift to the doctor and helped them find a new home among many other things.  It will also involve adopting an understanding attitude. Employers sometimes need to take a chance on someone. I’d like to see that happening more often – just because a person had a tough start in life, perhaps becoming a low-level youth offender, that doesn’t mean they should be written off for good. They may just need the right environment and role models – and working life often provides just that.

It’s important to apply a different set of rules when employing apprentices; to look out for them until they get established. They will still have a lot to learn about the workplace –not just about their job, but also learning professional skills, how to deal with knock backs and failures while still moving forwards.  Until now their experience of failing may have been to give up – walk away.

We can’t have that happening if we want to sustain the progress we make as a society by employing apprentices in the first place.  If they don’t turn up for work, employers should not come down on them heavily in the first instance. Better to try and find out if there is a problem. Small practical support can help a lot. Be caring and focus on well-being. Always think, ‘what is the reason for that behaviour?’

We’ve sent staff around to wake an apprentice up and bring him to work before now. He just needed to lose his old nocturnal pattern of behaviour.  Another incidence of absenteeism was sorted once we discovered that the apprentice had been kicked out of his home.  Most issues can be helped with time and patience and the results are well worth it – businesses really feel the benefit of these young apprentices.

This idea of not repeating past behaviour and experiences is also one of the reasons why I feel that apprentice assessment should always happen in the work place, rather than on day release in another classroom situation.

Many of these apprentices dislike the classroom environment and may already have ‘failed’ in one. So having assessors coming to their workplace is good, and in my view, the way forward.

Employers also need to up-skill staff working closely with apprentices – it’s a combination of parenting and teaching which is so worthwhile and satisfying. Most youngsters have the potential to be great – if their needs are factored in and understood.

For companies it’s a rewarding way to work. For some it will be a very new way of working. But mentoring the personal side is just as important as the skills side. Invest in the person – not just their skills.