How to train an apprentice

5 March 2018

We’ve given you 10 good reasons to train an apprentice – but how? Who better to ask for advice than the firms that have done it

Don’t rush into it

Successful apprenticeship schemes take time and thought to get right.

“Companies shouldn’t do it for the wrong reasons,” warns Manchester-based SME Travel Counsellors’ Head of HR Laura Herbert. “It’s not a temporary fix to resourcing issues. Business needs to identify key areas of growth and find any skills and capability shortages that represent a risk to the long-term success of their organisation.” 

“They also need to be clear about what the business case is,” says Ruth South, Capgemini’s Head of Graduate & Apprentice Programmes. “Whether it’s to fill a skills gap, drive diversity or support retention, knowing what you want the apprenticeship to deliver will help ensure buy in for it – and ultimately success.”

Seek advice

“There are a great number of well-organised, first-rate apprenticeships being run by businesses across the UK and gathering advice on best practice within your field will be key to success,” says Jennifer Kingston, Associate Principal Scientist at AstraZeneca.

Providers can help you work out what's possible and what to watch out for

“It helps to have an appreciation of what recruiting apprentices will mean in terms of the time investment and commitment required by the apprentice as well as by the employer, and to have a clear vision of the outcomes for both the business and the apprentice,” adds Andrew Hartley, Commercial Director at Sheffield College.

“When one of the biggest challenges firms face is around how to use the Apprenticeship Levy – and what constitutes 20 per cent “off-the-job” training – providers can also help you work out what’s possible and what to watch out for,” says University of Lincoln’s Partnerships Development Manager Martin Hickerton.

But he warns: “Not many people are fully experts yet, so companies need to recognise that there will be learning points along the way”.

Choose a training partner wisely

“Do your research and understand their flexibility based on your needs,” says Capgemini’s Ruth South.

You need to be willing to collaborate with that partner, consistently, for the duration of the programme, adds Hadlow Group’s deputy CEO Mark Lumsdon-Taylor. “It’s vital to support the apprentice in achieving their learning goals.”

“Where it works well, the college, the employer and the apprenticeship are all aligned and driving the programme together,” agrees James Whybrow, Vice Principal, Partnerships, Apprenticeships and Enterprise at Nottingham College. “If everybody puts in the time upfront in the planning – and understands what the apprentice is learning when – everything will work more smoothly.”

And share some of the hard work

“The most common misconceptions from employers hinge around perceptions that apprenticeships are overly bureaucratic and involve too much paperwork,” says Sheffield College’s Andrew Hartley. “Our response is the return on investment to the organisation from investing in new talent and skills, and business growth, is worth the initial time spent on administration. Plus apprenticeship training providers are here to share the load.” 

The return on investment is worth the initial time spent on administration

“It’s not as tricky as you think,” agrees Whybrow, who explains that Nottingham College has an account manager for every employer, regardless of size. It can also advertise the apprenticeship vacancies and manage the recruitment process to the shortlist stage, he says.

In-house benefits

Approximately a fifth of Innovia Films Wigton-based workforce are or have been apprentices. Its People Development Manager Ian Hill has seen “great value” in accessing education providers’ “off the shelf” apprenticeship programmes, such as in engineering. But unwilling to “stand still” and with an eye on the future success of the business, he’s now looking to tailor them to specific requirements – building specific environmental modules into them, for example.  

“In-house training enables the employer to shape the apprentice and instil their company values from the outset,” says Hadlow’s Mark Lumsdon-Taylor.

Taking it further still, United Utilities has invested £1.5m to build its own technical training centre, which, according to Apprentice Delivery Manager Jacqui Kawczak, gives it as much control as possible on relevant course content.

Get sponsorship from the top 

United Utilities is also listed as one of the top 100 apprenticeship employers in the UK, and it has won awards at national and regional level. Why? “Sponsorship at director level,” says Kawczak. “In our case from our Chief Operating Officer Steve Fraser. It allows us to continually invest in state of the art training facilities and resources to ensure the high quality of our provision.”

Ensure the apprentice will be valued

“Make sure it’s a real job”, says Gemma Knott, Business Development Director at Loughborough College.

Clearly identify roles which provide a development opportunity for an enthusiastic and talented individual

“Clearly identify roles which provide a development opportunity for an enthusiastic and talented individual,” says AstraZeneca’s Kingston. “Plan for their long-term development and don’t set limits on their career aspirations.”

“To tackle the common misconception that apprentices are cheap labour, we ensure that apprentice requests are formalised and approved by a central working group,” says Barrie Hurst, People Development Business Partner at social housing provider Bolton at Home. “Managers requesting an apprentice need to understand their responsibility to agree an internal training plan and allocate all of the time and resources to train him or her.”

Tailor your recruitment process

“In the selection process, attitude should be more important than anything,” says Nikki Flanders, Chief Operating Officer at Opus Energy. “Apprentices should have fire in their belly and understand it’s an amazing opportunity. It’s a privilege for both sides.”

But with apprenticeships now covering a range of disciplines, PwC’s Student Recruitment Manager Katherine Bond urges employers to “think really carefully about what roles you are recruiting apprentices for and what kind of person you need to do that role”.

At chartered surveyors and property consultant George F White, apprentice Ashley Barnes was offered a work trial first, so both sides knew what to expect.

Build a comprehensive support framework

Apprentices need on the job support – and a lot of it.

At induction, bear in mind that for many apprentices it’s not just a welcome to your organisation but to work in general, says Capgemini’s South. “Focus on the behaviours, values and expectations your company has and make them clear from day one.”

“For most of us, it’s hard to remember when we were 16 or 17,” adds Opus Energy’s Flanders, suggesting they may need help to understand the basics, such as tax deductions on their payslip.

For most of us, it's hard to remember when we were 16 or 17

Each apprentice also needs to feel they have a team around them who have their back – making sure they are adapting to the world of work and managing to balance their work and study.

"It is so important that line managers fully understand the apprenticeship programme to enable them to provide first hand support," says Kathryn Marshall, Senior Manager, Apprenticeships at Lloyds Banking Group.

As well as significant manager and line manager support, Northern Gas Networks has a buddy scheme, as well as roaming advisers, says the company’s learning and development specialist Alexandra Willans. It also encourages an active peer network so that the apprentices can support each other.

Similarly at CEMEX, its HGV driver apprentices are given an individual mentor and driver buddy, as well as the training advisor, lead driver and assigned manager. To ensure good communication between all of them, it publishes a weekly progress tracker, as well as regular conference calls and one to one reviews. It also provides a comprehensive course workbook covering all aspects of the company, the course content and key subject areas of health and safety.

Help existing staff to understand the reason for hiring an apprentice

George F Wright branch manager Lindsay French highlights that the level of support required by an apprentice may be more daunting for a smaller business with limited resources, but when she failed to have the time to pass on her knowledge, other members of the team have stepped in.

Ensuring they see the value of having an apprentice is therefore just as important as senior buy-in.

It's a route to failure if your team thinks the apprentice is there to support the team, rather than contribute to it

“It’s a route to failure if your team thinks the apprentice is there to support the team, rather than contribute to it,” says Opus Energy’s Flanders. “It’s really important to lay out with existing employees the value of having an apprentice, and what’s expected of them. Energise the existing team – they are playing a role in developing talent for the future.”

In businesses that have previous relied on graduate talent, it can require “a bit of a mindset shift”, says PwC’s Katherine Bond. But she adds being able to explain why the company runs apprenticeships – and staff being able to see the quality of people that have come through it – has helped demonstrated their value.

Open up similar opportunities for them too offers them the same chance to develop their skills and gain careers in areas they are interested in.

At Amazon, for example, employee Gabor Nandori undertook a number of different roles at its Bedfordshire fulfilment centre before joining the engineering Apprenticeship scheme in 2014. Having always had a keen interest in engineering, he found his niche working with an automation engineer in the second year of his apprenticeship – so much so that he became one of Amazon’s go-to experts for automation issues while still in the third year of his apprenticeship.

Don’t forget external influencers

Parents, teachers and peers have a strong impact on the decision of a young person whether to continue into Higher Education or enter the job market – and some of them will still be holding on to traditional stereotypes of apprentices, warns Travel Counsellors’ Herbert.

Communication is really important to make them feel like they're part of the family at the firm before they've even started

PwC has done a lot of marketing and branding to ensure that people are aware of the apprenticeships it has on offer, particularly in the area of consulting, technology and tax. But Bond says one of the biggest challenges is working with parents to reassure them that an apprenticeship is an excellent alternative to university and that their child is not hindering their career progression doing an apprenticeship.

Bond also suggests companies keep an eye on young apprentices before they join and soon after. “University remains a big temptation,” she says. “Communication is therefore really important to make sure they feel like they’re part of the family at the firm before they’ve even started.”

You get back, what you put in

“We invest a lot of time, effort and money on our apprentices – not just on the qualification but on their individual development,” says Bolton at Home’s Hurst.

“We encourage them to spend time in different departments to understand how their role may impact on others. We have teambuilding and confidence building sessions with all apprentices within the first six months. We encourage them to volunteer for two weeks with partner charities in Romania and Hungary, along with local college students and our tenants, to widen their cultural and diversity awareness. Others take part in local team working events, with apprentices from other Greater Manchester housing providers, developing working relationships, contacts and networks in other organisations. Pushing their life experiences and boundaries helps them to develop a can-do attitude.”

“You reap what you sow,” he adds.

Join the discussion