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Could 2018 be the year of the apprentice?

Apprentice 2
After more years in the business of recruiting than I like to admit, I’m still fascinated by the different ways the broad infrastructure of education and employment work together to produce new generations of effective professionals.

Trends in academic STEM subjects over the last decade or so have meant that we’re facing a shortage of candidates within science, technology and related fields. Only recently has academia been truly proactive in addressing this problem, and it will be some time before there’s enough strong talent emerging from our universities to plug the skills shortage.

There’s no question that academia can produce strong STEM candidates, but I’ve been interested to note recently that a number of clients have shown increased interest in candidates with qualifications gained through apprenticeships. It’s not something I’ve seen much before now, but is not entirely unexpected.

March 2018 saw the government-endorsed National Apprenticeship week, when, to quote, “…employers and apprentices from across England will come together to celebrate the success of apprenticeships whilst encouraging even more people to choose apprenticeships as a pathway to a great career.” So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the value of apprentices and the opportunities apprenticeships can provide for people beginning (or changing) their career.

What is an apprentice?

Apprentices are usually young adults who leave education to enter employment and then, supported by their employers, study for a work-based qualification. In doing so they combine on-the-job training with classroom-based learning within a recognised framework.

For many this will take the form of a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) delivered by their local college. They will be given day release to complete their course over a period of two or three years, receiving on-the-job training whilst also having their studies sponsored by their employer.

At the end of their course they will receive their professional qualification, and will also be able to boast two or three years of professional experience with one employer. The great advantage with this system of practical learning is that, unlike graduates, apprentices get paid for learning rather than having to pay to learn.

The end result of this process is an individual who is understandably attractive to other employers given the mixture of academic and practical learning they can offer. While this is a risk to the company subsiding their employees’ study, apprentices are not highly paid and are a relatively inexpensive way for an organisation to fulfil more junior roles, usually within a more hands-on context. Moreover, they are often loyal to the company who hires them and funds their learning.

Apprentices generally receive a lot of support from their employer and can gain a great deal of product knowledge. However, in order to secure a rapid and significant salary increase, they may need to leave their employer to join another organisation. Of course this is not always the case.

What makes apprentices such attractive prospects?

Apprentices often come with a terrific attitude. They’re hard-working and appreciative, driven and highly motivated, and the on-the-job experience they gain in contrast to their more academic counterparts can mean they often have a strong awareness of how much they still have to learn. They are well able to place their own experience in a wider context and recognise what they need to learn to progress their career. They gain invaluable corporate or cultural experience on the job.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about how the more purely academic studies could do more to prepare students for the realities of the workplace, and apprentices offer a valuable corrective to some of the flaws of the academic model. They are specifically moulded by their commercial environment and, often, the needs of their employer. For employers, an apprentice provides the opportunity to plan against perceived future skills gaps and fill them before they occur.

Hiring organisations recognise all of the abovementioned qualities in apprentices. In recent months I’ve experienced a number of clients within the manufacturing sector asking for an apprentice rather than a graduate. Their reasoning is that apprentices have practical skills, know what it’s like to work in a manufacturing environment and can be developed easily because they’re already in a development mind-set, open to learning as they go.

The last few apprentices I have worked with have been in fields like electronics and machinery, where they have learned to wire up a control panel or assemble complex machinery. I have also seen apprentices working as field services engineers who go to customer sites to install, commission, fault-find and repair customer equipment in order to become thoroughly well-versed in the product. By the time they finish, they’re also experienced in dealing with customers – a priceless and hugely sought-after skill.

Apprentices within my markets tend toward what might be regarded as hands-on skill domains; they’re not normally designers, but are practical doers. There’s a shortage of these roles, so if they’re good, those apprentices are in demand.  Good programmes can create a rich seam of talent.

What makes a good apprentice?

The secret to a great apprentice is in their attitude. Find the right apprentice and you can mould them into the perfect candidate. I’ve seen a number of clients do this with quality engineer roles: the apprentices learn their trade and learn good behaviours too. They emerge as the right person for the job - in terms of both hard and soft skills.

Given all of this, it’s not surprising that good apprentices are often able to sell themselves well in an interview, and clients tend to want them when they find them.

There are likely to be certain kinds of roles that may never be the preserve of apprentices. Companies seeking an R&D Design Engineer are likely to want a graduate with a 1st or a 2:1 who can create game-changing design.

But apprentices are by no means excluded from opportunities to progress to leading roles within a business. Their route to senior roles may be different, but there is a route for strong candidates.

Mouldable, affordable, pragmatic and possessing real-world experience, hungry to learn and often loyal, apprentices are increasingly seen as an alternative to graduates.

For anyone interested to learn more about apprenticeships, there are a great number of available resources. Just a few are below, and most of the commercial job boards feature many apprenticeship roles.