Date: 01/03/16 Duration: 00:18:24

Last year, the Government pledged to create 3 million apprenticeships over the course of the next parliament. These schemes represent big opportunities for businesses; young people bring with them new ideas and innovation and the chance for businesses to develop the specific skills and capabilities they need. But integrating young people into the workplace has its challenges too.

In this podcast we talk to Aileen Randhawa, HR Director MBDA about how they have developed their highly sought-after apprenticeship scheme, and we catch up with Aaron Saxton, Director of Training at UKFast along with three of his apprentices for a view of their vibrant apprenticeship scheme from the inside out.

How does your organisation develop its young talent? Join in the discussion on Twitter @CIPD using the hashtag #cipdpodcasts.

View the full podcast transcript

YP: So where we’re starting off we’re in the training room at the moment, sort of classroom size I suppose you’d describe it as, very colourful.

YP: Looks like something from NASA there's about ten screens there all with different graphs.

Philippa Lamb: This is an employee in his first year at UKFast, an internet hosting company in Manchester.

YP: And that's where we spend a decent amount of time. PL: He joined UKFast as an apprentice, straight out of school aged 16.

YP: And then as well as this room the tech floor upstairs, like a whole floor.

PL: Apprenticeships are a hot topic right now. The government has pledged to create three million of them and it’s hoping to see a big productivity gain for the UK economy in return, to the tune of £3.4bn over the next decade. The challenge for employers is how to find, integrate and support all that young talent.

Aaron Saxton: We have 17, we’re hovering around 10% of our workforce have come directly out of education into an apprenticeship programme here.

PL: Aaron Saxton is director of training and education at UKFast. He used to be a teacher and now he heads up the apprenticeship scheme.

AS: And we’re growing that but we won't dilute the quality of what we deliver. This isn’t about farming out and just growing talent for growing talent’s sake, this is about investing in the future of your workforce, filling the skills gap and providing young people with a real career.

PL: So there's a lot of truisms around about young workers isn’t there and what everyone says is they’re digitally savvy and sometimes they’re a bit unreliable and sometimes they can be a bit useless for about the first year or two. And that's mostly what people say about young workers.

AS: And I don't know why we tarnish young people with this sort of negativity about what they’ll add to a business. For us here, and I think it’s very important that everybody across the UK, understands the value of having this eagerness, this appetite for development, this passion that you can't buy that. So for us yeah naturally, like as any developing young person they need to learn and develop.

PL: The UKFast offices are a riot of colour with a work hard/play hard ethic. There's a games console den, a gym, ping pong and pool tables. All in all it’s a mecca for youngsters.

YP: Yeah I play a lot of ping pong, usually a daily thing. Lunch and breaks as well.

PL: Isn’t it a bit tempting to spend all your time in there gaming? YP: Er, yeah can be. I mean you manage your own time really, you can play pool; go in the gym for half an hour or whatever.

PL: Do you play a lot of pool?

YP: Yeah I play it; it’s quite competitive, especially between us new apprentices. It recharges you if anything. I mean me and Adam we had a problem the other day on one of my servers and we came down, played a game of pool, talked about what we had to do and then we thought, ‘Hang on we’ve got it!’ went back upstairs, did it and it worked. So that's good it gets you going.

PL: Young people of course are endlessly varied but as Aaron told me employing 16 year olds does bring with it its own set of particular requirements.

AS: Actually managing young people will sometimes, or often, be very different to managing an adult. And they have different needs and different requirements.

PL: What sort of things?

AS: Everything from technology with tech speech and various other things have actually demised and dissolved the quality of how young people communicate. So one of the challenges that we first broached was the softer skills in young people that those transferrable communication skills, how they articulate, how they write. So one thing we work quite strongly with, a lot of the team leaders, actually helping young people to develop with their voice, how they articulate, how they communicate, whether that be written or verbal communication.

PL: Okay and what about other specific challenges?

AS: Maybe how to interact with a client for the first time, how to set expectations. And what does good or amazing service look like on paper and why is it important that we’re always delivering that at the highest possible level? It’s how to be an adult. That's something all of us, you develop over time. You need time to develop and understand how to be an adult, everything from waking up, getting to work, managing your time, lunch, interacting with people, how to use the phone: it’s all really new to them.

PL: So do you actively teach that?

AS: We have softer skills modules specifically developed, I suppose off the back of our apprentices is really where they first started but we deliver softer skills training, or I like to refer to them more as transferrable skills, right across the business.

YP: Well in year ten at sixth form I did work experience at UKFast, I loved it so much that then I applied for an apprenticeship which I did online through the National Apprenticeship Service website. Yeah you get a real sense of energy as soon as you walk into the building and a real sense of support as well from our managers.

PL: Yeah I mean tell me a bit about the experience of actually learning the technical stuff, the apprenticeship skills that you’re here actually to acquire? How does that work?

YP: So the actual apprenticeship that we complete is a level three qualification. It has, is it 18 units, I think, 19, something like that?

YP: Yeah it’s good here because all the apprenticeship units are all dedicated to us, they’re all written to us and for our job roles so it makes it much more relevant that the work we’re doing is actually useful and it’s not just a qualification, we actually learnt from the qualification and the units as well.

PL: UK Fast apprentices are all hired as permanent employees and they all combine work and college during their training years. It’s a big step up from school and the first big experience for each of them is induction, a key moment for them and the first opportunity to bond the new cohort for Aaron.

YP: Then we had induction, and while we’re on induction we’re going to Snowden, we found out to our great surprise, it was a great experience as well.

PL: Going to Snowdon?

YP: Yeah climbing Snowdon, some team-building exercise, it is really great to make friends and interact with people that you might not necessarily know because everyone that goes has just started at the same time as us as well. So it is a great experience.

AS: We allow them to shadow and work with a range of different leaders and teams and departments and functions so they can harness that maybe untouched skill that they didn’t know they had.

PL: So like taster sessions almost?

AS: Yeah almost like tasters or inductions and off the back of that from the feedback from team leaders, and we’re quite proud here in the way we look at professional development. You’d expect a traditional quarterly mentoring one to one, we actually have a daily reporting system so everybody in this business and obviously including our apprentices have this opportunity to feedback to their team leaders about things like their training, what went well, what they need to improve on. Then we can use as a real professional development strategy.

PL: The scheme includes around 20 knowledge and competence units and as well as that they might complete technical qualifications, perhaps even do a degree alongside. It sounds demanding technically, quite a steep learning curve do you feel that you’re being urged on all the time?

YP: Yeah, we are, yeah. One of my main challenges from when I started was the jump from IT in school to using real software here. In school it’s a lot of Word and PowerPoint and here it’s actually real software that's with real clients, live clients. That's what I found hard.

PL: I mean the clients, you raise clients, that is an interesting thing isn’t it, you don't learn that stuff at school how's that been interacting with clients? A bit scary?

YP: One thing we do as apprentices we actually look after our biggest client here, we provide out of hours support for them.

PL: And this is a global client if it’s the one I'm thinking of?

YP: It’s a global client yeah.

PL: So how is that when you’re talking to some person in Kazakhstan, or wherever it is, out of hours for them, it’s not someone you've ever met, completely new voice on the end of the phone, how do you do it? Is it Skype? Is it phone, how does it work?

YP: It’s all over the phone and also a ticket system as well. So there are some language barriers but yeah you learn a lot from it.

PL: Elsewhere another very different apprenticeship employer, MBDA has a 10,000 strong global workforce designing, developing and manufacturing missiles. Here’s Aileen Randhawa MBDA’s HR director.

Aileen Randhawa: Like many other engineering organisations we have some challenges as far as skills gaps are concerned. We also have an aging demographic so we’re more towards the right end of the spectrum I would say than the left hand side. And actually that's a really key part of our business. Because of our particular type of product we actually have to develop our skills in house, we can't just go out into the market and buy them. So that means we’re looking for people who are going to commit to a 15 year plus career with us, not five year. So we are quite specific in that sense.

PL: And very unusual.

AR: Yes. So we really do need to keep that influx of new blood coming in and learning from our more experienced employees who need to transfer obviously their knowledge, their wisdom, their skills to the younger profiles that we’re bringing in.

PL: Okay so they come in with GCSEs and they come in with no work experience presumably, most of them?

AR: Exactly.

PL: None at all. So you've got the whole issue of actually making them work-ready before you teach them anything, how do you do that?

AR: We are quite targeted about the breadth of skills that they need to take on. So yes technical skills clearly are very important. But we also look at what we call life skills, so your personal development. Things like enhanced presentation skills. So their ability to communicate with different audiences, different targets of populations. And we have very strong links with our education partners. So we actually go into primary schools, we go into secondary schools, we go into colleges, we go into universities. And all of the apprentices are involved in that. So they're having to interact with lots of different people and they have a key role to play in promoting who MBDA is, why engineering is a good prospect, why it offers you a good career, why it would be of interest to maybe a 14 year old who, up until that stage, has just been studying in Wigan and doesn’t know that there may be this other opportunity available to them. So it’s really about the focus around the breadth of skills not just are they going to be a good mechanical engineer by the time they’ve finished their apprenticeship.

PL: MBDA employ their apprentices at age 16 and their training takes four years. Right now they have 80 apprentices in the system and they’ve been taking some of them on every year for 20 years. Now of course during that time young people have evolved, not least with the digital revolution and the scheme has had to adapt to match them.

AR: We have a gender imbalance if we start to talk about diversity. And this was a reality that we faced some 15 years ago when we decided actually what we were going to do was be really specific with the colleges that we partner with and ask that they submit equal numbers of male and female candidates. We’ve now found, so if I think about the current cohort, the numbers are rebalanced. They’re not exactly 50/50 but I think it’s 48 to 52.

PL: Are they?

AR: Yeah.

PL: You must be pleased with that because that's way off the industry average isn’t it?

AR: It is, well the industry average is something like 7% female engineers in the workforce.

PL: And by using their apprentices as advocates in schools they’re able to chip away at that gender self-selection that’s still so rife amongst youngsters when it comes to choosing careers.

AR: We’ve got the whole spectrum of females. There are some that take great pride in their appearance and get interesting reactions when they do go into primary and secondary schools because they’ll turn up with their nails that have got all the nail art and the hair extensions.

PL: Looking fantastic. AR: Yeah looking absolutely amazing and we have had responses from younger girls saying, “Well I didn’t know that engineering could be done by somebody who looks like you, and surely you should be in overalls and you should be covered in oil?” and all of those stereotypes that get broken down.

PL: At MBDA the first week is full on for the new cohort of apprentices and there's a lot to take in.

AR: They would come in, they would meet Gareth.

PL: Gareth, like Aaron is the person overseeing the whole apprentice journey.

AR: They would then sit down in the HR department and go through all the basics of having their badge, being able to access the different areas of the business, knowing where the canteen is. They would have their buddy assigned to them from the following year of apprentices, so somebody who is only a year older than themselves, so somebody they can relate to and perhaps ask those questions that they’re too embarrassed to ask a grown up.

PL: Mentoring is a brilliant way to provide pastoral care in what might otherwise feel like an intimidating workplace and MBDA’s big support network of mentors and buddies is key to the scheme’s success. It’s the same story at UKFast where support is also central to the scheme and where, as well as mentors; they have regular monthly meetings where apprentices can swap stories and chat about their progress.

AS: We always look at fun ways of scheduling meetings or team events. What the apprentices and these young people like is they seem to love a MacDonald’s on a Friday morning, I fund that breakfast, god knows how much I've spent on that over the last few years but when we get together in this room where we are right now we talk about key agenda points, either off the back of daily reports or things that they might bring with them and what we’ve built into our programme now is our graduated apprentices, our more senior apprentices, now take ownership and act as direct mentors and they will come with agenda and points in those meetings as well.

PL: Taking teenagers onto your workforce can inevitably throw up some generational divides and management issues and sometimes existing and more senior employees may need their own training in how to manage and get the best from apprentices.

AR: They’re not like standard colleagues and we have some interesting dialogues. So yes they have been trained.

PL: Like what?

AR: The most recent one has been the use of smartphones. If we take a caricature of Joe who’s 56 and he's got his ways of doing things and he's got his 16 year old apprentice who’s been assigned and this 16 year old apprentice turns up with a smartphone, has got their earplugs in, Joe will think that this 16 year old apprentice is paying no attention and there were many Joes and many apprentices. What we tried to explain was actually what the apprentice was doing was learning but their method of recording their learning was on their smartphone.

PL: Oh, okay.

AR: And this was a completely new concept to 56 year old Joe.

PL: The outcomes of running this scheme are extremely impressive at UKFast.

AS: For us it’s an investment in the future and always will be.

PL: And do they stay?

AS: They all stay. We have 100% record so far.

PL: That's encouraging.

AS: Yeah.

PL: Do they say why they stay?

AS: There's often a lot of positive by product by running programmes like this that we’ve discovered and one of them is this inherent level of loyalty. They join a business and they see a business that cares for them, they invest in them, they help them develop. Off the back of that they see that and think, ‘This is a business I want to stay with for a career.’

PL: So for you as a business it’s cost-effective this, because this is expensive, it’s labour-intensive isn’t it?

AS: It is cost-effective, it can be labour-intensive and it can be costly for businesses, what value and cost can you put on having an engineer who’s graduated after 40 months on a course who’s one of our top networking engineers? How much would that have cost in recruitment fees, running assessment days, having a gap there for a long period of time?

PL: And you've already got the cultural fit?

AS: Yeah, so we’ve developed the cultural fit and we’re very fortunate our recruitment process is very rigorous and we’re so harnessed and focused on the values that we very rarely have people leave us.

PL: And at MBDA it’s an equally impressive picture.

AR: Over the past ten years we have a retention rate of 98%.

PL: Now so you've been doing this a very long time as an organisation where do your apprentices go? Do some of them filter up out of the technical side into management and rise to higher echelons?

AR: Yes, they do absolutely. Yes. So the head of our production facility up at Lostock, so near Bolton, is an ex-apprentice. So he worked his way right up. Some of my colleagues on the management team are ex-apprentices. So absolutely there are opportunities right through the organisation.

PL: So that's inspirational isn’t it?

AR: Yes it is.

PL: And for the apprentices this inspiration is a big motivating force to learn and progress.

YP: It’s great here that you do, everyone else has been kept on previously, really good for us knowing…

PL: Yeah, all the apprentices have stayed in the business I hear.

YP: Yeah, they have, yeah.

PL: I mean are any of you thinking further down the line you might like management careers here? Because we’re talking about technical skills but obviously the sky’s the limit isn’t it once you’re here?

YP: The managing director said in our interview that he wants to see one of us as the next managing director. And I really hope that one day that's true with some of us.

PL: Next month, did you know that well over half of all lesbian, gay, bi and trans graduates go back into the closet when they start work? If you’re one of them you'll already know why they do that. If not listen in to the accounts of LGBT life at work that we’ve been recording and you'll start to get the picture. Free to download from Tuesday April 5th; if inclusion is on your agenda don't miss it.

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