Selecting and Retaining Apprentices

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Published: 12 October 2015


Steve Dixey, Mechanical Instructor from engineering training business, HETA, explores how to choose and keep apprentices.

Apprentice Mind-Set

​What about the mind-set of a potential apprentice? Whilst not universal, we do see that there can be unrealistic expectations of reward for performance. Apprentices seek the fastest route to the solution without caring about the process or even understanding how they arrived there. The solution is produced without checking it for being realistic. Apprentices worry about getting it right when they are not given the answer to work to and constantly ask for reassurance. As a result of that they work very incrementally. This can be a product of the school “system”.

They can also lack staying power and expect things to be neatly sewn up by pressing a button on a computer and may be unable to complete work-based tasks on a computer despite being supposedly IT savvy. These traits affect employment in many sectors, not just engineering, and echo comments made by the CBI and others.

This is possibly the toughest challenge faced by potential employers and training providers for which there are no easy answers. An element of “tough love” applies here. When a student sees work thrown in the scrap bin after one hole was drilled incorrectly in a work-piece that took a week to produce, that does test their ability to keep going. It makes them realise they have to concentrate for longer periods of time and gain a realisation that the teacher is not going to help them at every stage.

As HETA has a rigorous recruitment process, the young people we train tend to be more focussed. This is not to say we don't have apprentices who exhibit  some of the traits shown above at some stage, but the low student \ instructor ratios, the working environment and regular reviews mean they are left in no doubt that they need to improve.

Career Advice

​Schools career advice has been slated as being out of touch and students may not have realistic expectations of the requirements of particular workplaces. This is not the complete picture and it depends very much on who is in charge at schools and 6th form colleges and what previous experiences they have had in contacts with companies. Parents and siblings will also colour opinions.

Schools may view engineering as an “easy” route compared to academic pathways even though the requirements for maths, science and other skills are higher than ever.  We have invited groups of teachers into the training centre, given them presentations on engineering and showed them what goes into engineering training and the sorts of things different trades would be doing.

There are perception gaps as some teachers may never leave academia in one form or another and go from school to university to a teaching career. As with apprentice training, employer engagement with schools may bridge this gap. Both parties may say “We can’t spare anyone” but there has to be a meeting of minds and mutual respect at some stage if schools are going to produce useful future employees and employers appreciate what hoops schools and colleges have to go through in order to bring their student up to the requirements set by ministers in order for them to keep funding.

Technology teachers are a possible route into engaging with schools and 6th form colleges as they may be more appreciative of what they are shown.

​Recruitment and Retention

recruit and retain - ACR Journal
​HETA recruit on behalf of their client companies or can filter likely candidates who will then be presented to companies for selection. As they are interviewed by engineering staff, we may have a better feel for suitability. Given the very high retention rate, HETA feel that they have taken the right approach. The interview looks for initiative, for knowledge of basic engineering concepts and an ability to express themselves clearly. Potential apprentices are invited in to practical workshop sessions. Attendance at and performance in these also have a bearing on potential suitability.

HETA also offer traineeships to students who do not have a sponsoring employer. They cover exactly the same training pathway as sponsored apprentices and HETA actively seek employment opportunities, with very high success rates. These potential apprentices come “work ready” with both practical NVQ Level 2 and Level 3 technical certificate qualifications. We do this as some FE colleges back out of practical workshop training to offer classroom-based technical qualifications that are no real use without the practical skills to back them up. This training also eats into the funding that comes with school leavers, stripping away part of that funding and leaving a gap that has to be filled by completing practical skills training and assessment for an NVQ 2.

We do get students who are asking for jobs and looking to gain an NVQ 3 via an engineering apprenticeship with an employer but get told their technical certificates such as BTEC are no use unless they first undertake an NVQ 2 pathway. As funding has been used to get a Level 3 BTEC technical certificate, that student is less attractive to cost-conscious employers and engineering training providers. Exceptional candidates may get taken on and their employer may plug that funding gap but that is the exception rather than the rule.

​What do Employers Get?

​What employers need to appreciate is that apprentices can be a real asset if they are trained properly.  Yes, there are hiccups on the way and yes, there is a possibility of losing a very small percentage on the way.

Employers need to check that the funding available is used correctly and that training providers are not picking the low hanging fruit of classroom-based teaching to access funding. The best route is still to pick early after GCSE's or A levels to maximise training incentives.

Mature Apprentices

Finally, what about “mature apprentices”? Unfortunately, the funding is often slewed towards young people and it is not an easy task to secure funding. We feel it is wrong to discriminate in this way as older workers may have a better attitude to work, be more focussed in their approach and generally progress faster through the NVQ assessment process.

​The only catch may be that academically they may struggle after being away from a learning environment for a period of time. This may be overcome by the use of internet access to learning resources at a training provider coupled with peer support and access to face-to-face or peer support. HETA have supported offshore workers in this way.