Hints and tips for hiring apprentices - an interview with Graham Howe

In this insightful interview, Graham Howe, Director of The London College of Apprenticeship Training and The London Apprenticeship Company offers employers some useful hints and tips for hiring apprentices.

How is the hiring process different when you take on apprentices as opposed to other people?

I don’t really sign up to the people who think that it differs greatly from any other recruitment process. It shouldn’t be if you’ve got a recruitment policy and process which aims to recruit the best people. I think the fundamental difference is that if you are recruiting apprentices into an entry level job, you’re recruiting people that are basically incapable of doing that job at this stage, because you accept that the experience they have will not have given them that capability. You’re not going to be recruiting someone with the necessary capability, though they may well have shown ability. Therefore, you’ve got to recruit based on talent and attitude, alongside any vocational and academic qualifications to give you a feel. You won’t necessarily have the same reference points that demonstrate that this person is able to do the job. 

What tips would you have for employers who are hiring apprentices for the first time? Does their business model need to adapt, what should they be thinking of, what might they need to put in place internally?

The first step is to identify roles and vacancies in your organisation that are suitable for apprenticeships. Set your criteria, whether this might be a role, for example, that requires a lot of written communication with customers and you want good English, or you may require someone to have a driving licence. 

Once you have your criteria, I think it becomes the same as any other recruitment process. Whatever it is, you should do the same basic things as you would in any other recruitment process. I’ve seen it too often that an employee meets a young person and kind of like their story and therefore give them a job even though they didn’t meet the criteria they’d originally set. Shortlist and then decide what you want your assessment centre to look like. Is it an interview? Is it to be task-based? Do you want them to stand up and talk about themselves? Even if they have not worked before, they would expect some kind of process. IT would also be interesting to see who their references are and what they say – even if they haven’t worked before. If you’re recruiting for a level 4 project manager, however, I’d expect you’d want to include some written tasks that might allow them to show their problem solving skills. Obviously, if you’re recruiting an entry level administrator, you might not need to do that. I’ve always been a fan of the group exercise, so you can see how one potential apprentice performs against others.

What you need to get right is your own understanding of what support mechanism you are going to provide for an apprentice. What happens on day one when the apprentice arrives? It may not suffice to give them the normal induction, as they may not have worked before, they are not used to work-environment ettiquete and what they are expected to do if they are sick or they need something. The induction period therefore should be well thought through and structured – you can ask previous apprentices or newly recruited staff how they found it and whether it can be improved. Also decide whether the apprentices will have a work-place coach or mentor and whether the person who is assigned to look after the apprentices should undertake some formal training themselves to carry out this role effectively? 

The classic example is that a young person might think it’s acceptable to text their line manager when they are not going to come to work. Now, is that acceptable within the culture of your business and as it is a form of communication that most younger people find perfectly acceptable, does your culture need to change? That’s a basic example, but things like this could broaden your horizons around your processes and fundamentally, the success of what do you decide will be in how it is communicated.The things that need to change [in most organisations] will probably be a slight adaptation of their approach to the younger generation and to ensure that there is a support mechanism.

In a lot of businesses the apprentices are in an operational department, but separately they have a work-based mentor in HR who comes out and sees how they are getting in and is there if a problem arises. The reason that works well is that the HR person can also go back to the manager and advise if the apprentice is unhappy or feels that they are not being given enough work. Or of course, that they are loving the job and being part of a team.

Why is this the right time to hire an apprentice (or multiple apprentices)? What are the advantages of hiring apprentices and are there any potential pitfalls? What would you say are the key areas of value that apprentices can add to a business? 

I think we are now in a fairly mature apprenticeship market and employers will get what they pay for, both in terms of the salary the offer and the career opportunities afforded to the young person. You’re getting a lot of really smart, dedicated, career-focused young people who see apprenticeships as a value route, far moreso than people of a similar age have seen them as such in the last 10-15 years.

Employers will find some absolute gems who can play a big part in whatever growth or succession strategy they may have. The advent of the Apprenticeship Levy means that the focus will be greater in terms of spend and training for apprentices. There are more and more apprenticeships available at levels 4, 5, 6 and 7 so people can be developed into significant players in the business. Apprenticeships are back – they disappeared over the horizon for so long, but now they are right back in the landscape. The format may have changed a little, but they are back to stay and I know our customers really value them.

Most of our customers have a recruitment need and vacancies to fill. They don’t create apprentice positions to be kind to young people; they have jobs that need doing. The key value is that these jobs can be filled by bright young people who can be developed, very often, to be better than traditional incumbents of the same roles. What every employer has to accept is that on occasions getting apprentices to that level might take 3, 6, maybe even 12 months.

But once there, research has absolutely supported that the material investment is crucial for employers. What you’ve done when they reach this stage is recruit a switched-on person, given them the right training and development and given them the right opportunities in the workplace to use their skills. And what you now have is a better skilled, bright person with traditional roots in your business.

As I said earlier, this is a mature market and apprentices will stay if they are offered a good rate of pay and the opportunities are there. If young people move around, it’s because they are bored, not paid enough or not given the opportunities they want. That’s not about the society of young people today - if they decide to look elsewhere, it’s because the job’s not good enough and it’s the same for employees of any age. There are a percentage that might not feel brave enough to move on and will stick with an employer longer and there are certain industries in which people generally stay longer because their parents said it’s a good industry to be in, whether that’s a particular trade or they are working in the public sector, with all the benefits that brings. Young people stay for the right job – there is no doubt about that.

Where should an employer start and who are the key people to contact for support and assistance when hiring apprentices?

I’m a director of the London Apprenticeship Company, and we specialise in training apprentices and recruitment and employment of apprentices, so that’s a loaded question for me! But government evidence shows that organisations like us offer employers a support package that makes success more likely than traditional apprenticeship recruitment. 

Industry is littered with companies who decide to employ an apprentice, go to the National Apprenticeship website, list a job without being quite sure how to do it, and then fail to get the responses they were looking for. Often they give up or the process leads to failure. I’m a big fan of what apprenticeship training agencies and some of the larger training providers that offer that service too. I think the best route, particularly for companies that have not employed an apprentice before, would be to identify an organisation, whether an ATA or a training provider, that they are confident will support them through the recruitment process. 

In view of the Apprenticeship Levy being introduced, we are also specialists in managing that, which is another aspect of recruitment that employers will be bearing in mind over the next few months and years. We are working with a lot of businesses to work out how to implement and manage their levy.

What is the current thinking amongst learners and young people in general towards apprenticeships? Are you seeing interest grow and is that interest extending to ‘non-traditional’ apprenticeship sectors?

Two things. Firstly careers advice about Apprenticeships is slowly improving in schools and young people are definitely more aware of the different non-traditional sectors they can enter through the Apprenticeship market.The other side is you are seeing more current employees looking at Apprenticeships to upskill themselves, either with their current employer or a new employer. The existing workforce market is a big market and now that some of the barriers are being broken down around the definition of what an Apprenticeship is, they are appealing not just to 16 year olds. We placed around 500 apprentices last year and I would think the average age was around 22-23, when it might have been 18-19 a few years ago. It’s changed over the last three or four years, probably because school leavers 4-6 years ago didn’t have the same job opportunities as they do now and therefore stayed in education longer.

Maybe it’s just a natural churn in the employment market, though I’d have to say I have no hard evidence to back that up, it’s just my perspective.Do you think the Apprenticeship Levy is going to make a big difference to employers’ decisions to hire apprentices or not? How can it help them and how should they engage?It is a big and important policy that will impact on Apprenticeship numbers. There will be some employers who just don’t engage for a variety of reasons. But I think most large businesses that have an HR department or a talent management team aren’t going to ignore the fact that they are going to have significant sums in their digital account to spend on Apprenticeship training.

They key question that will be answered over the coming years will be how much of that money will be spent on new Apprenticeship recruitment and how much of it will be spent on current workforce development? Personally, I’m a fan of both and in some ways it doesn’t really matter, because your current workforce development will help individuals and businesses and it could also create room behind those individuals for further recruitment of apprentices in the future. I personally have spoken to more than 100 businesses about their levy and their requirements, and can count on one hand the number that are not considering recruiting apprentices. It’s part of their plan, though each of those businesses will naturally have a different view of what the numbers involved may or may not be.

One business might be looking to train 100 people through the levy, though new recruits only account for 10 or 15, while others might be training the same number of people, but recruiting 80 of them. Some of it is driven of course by where the business is in terms of vacancies – if they haven’t got large numbers of vacancies, they are not going to create them just to bring apprentices in through the levy. Any advice otherwise is wrong – there is no point creating jobs that are not meaningful or that do not add value to the young person’s experience. Training providers and agencies are getting better at their understanding of the offer around the levy, so clearly that’s the first port of call for people needing advice. You can visit our website or speak to us directly about any questions you may have. 

Where do you as an organisation fit into this equation, what are you doing now and how can you help employers?

Most of our apprenticeship recruitment is in London, but we are supporting levy and delivery nationally. We are recruiting outside of London, but it is the area where we specialise.Employers should not engage a training provider, an ATA or anybody about specific parts of apprenticeships. You have to view it as a bigger end-to-end thing. We are managing Apprenticeship programmes, which includes recruitment, the levy, our own training provision and training from other providers where they are better located to provide it.

It doesn’t work if an employer works with various unconnected organisations on different elements of the Apprenticeship delivery, but the full Apprenticeship solution will probably not be delivered by a single organisation.  Partnerships are key and employers should be looking for that kind of approach to achieve what they need. 

Graham Howe, is a Director of London College of Apprenticeship Training and London Apprenticeship Company, and works with Pearson as the awarding body for some of his company’s qualifications. He has a long-standing relationship with Pearson. Follow Graham on Twitter: @GrahamDavidHowe or learn more about Pearson apprenticeships.