Trailblazer apprenticeships are “much more aligned with what we want and need as an employer”

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For many college and school leavers, what to do next can be daunting.

Applying to university offers more education and development but comes with hefty fees and student debt. Applying for entry-level jobs and starting a career path brings the benefits of a salary but candidates must demonstrate that a school education is enough for the world of work.

Benefits of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships can bridge this gap for new starters and bring significant benefits to employers. In a recent AAT survey, 97% of small businesses surveyed say taking on apprentices has been good value for money and 90% say apprentices have boosted their productivity.

As part of a new “trailblazer” model, groups of employers and industry bodies are now setting the standards for apprenticeships allowing firms to make sure they work for their business needs. AAT has been involved in setting two standards as part of a trailblazer group.

Chris Hayes, a finance assistant at Miller Insurance Services LLP, was part of the organisation and AAT’s first cohort of trailblazer apprentices and the first person to complete his Assistant Accountant Apprenticeship with a distinction. He joined the business in September 2016, having applied for an apprenticeship as he was preparing to leave school:

“I applied to uni and an apprenticeship as well as a more viable option. It made a lot of sense to earn and work at the same time as learning. The lack of debt appealed and the fact that I wouldn’t have to move away from home.”

Balancing life

In his 15-month apprenticeship, Hayes had to juggle studying for multiple assessments with learning a new role and getting to know his office and colleagues. “People that apply for this aren’t likely to have had an office job before – like myself. They’re trying to juggle how to behave in an office with the knowledge and learning. At school you are used to the knowledge side but you don’t have to wear a suit,” he says, adding that the coaching and non-technical skills component of his training was invaluable, creating a structured transition from education to work.

“We did training in how to handle difficult conversations, as well as writing and speaking skills. It’s stuff you’ll need no matter where you go and it’s the kind of education you wouldn’t get at school and it can be rare to get at work,” he says.

Technical training

A self-awareness of how those soft skills are being developed alongside technical training is one of the benefits the trailblazer standards bring, says Becki Hunter, head of apprenticeship programmes, accountancy, for First Intuition, which provided Hayes’ technical training.

“Knowing where they can get better and improve means that the speed at which their career progresses is quicker. Because of that the engagement from employees and apprentices is better than it ever has been because they see the value and they understand the benefits.”

As a training provider, the trailblazer approach has allowed First Intuition to “really innovate the skills that the apprentice has” and move away from the previously restrictive model which often felt like a tick-box exercise, says Hunter. Now employers can think about how to support their apprentices for their future careers rather than just what is needed to get them through their apprenticeship.

Getting straight to work

Hayes enjoys the diversity of his workload and learning about other departments within the organisation. As an apprentice he was surprised to take on work straight away, but says despite “a steep learning curve” taking on this responsibility and being open to the learning and development opportunities on offer is what has made his apprenticeship such a success.

“It’s been a really positive experience for us and we are very proud of what Chris has achieved, which is down to him and the support of his team and coach,” says Verity Stroud, learning and development advisor at Miller.

Investing in talent

By engaging employers more directly, trailblazer apprenticeships are “much more aligned with what we want and need as an employer”, says Stroud: “I understand that part of the driver was that there was a bit of a gap between the skills being developed and what businesses actually needed. The team have said that looking at the standard that Chris is working to, it’s really aligned with the role that he’s doing and really helping him to grow in that role.”

It’s also given the business a new way to invest in and support talent amongst school leavers on their own terms, she says: “We are looking for somebody that’s committing to their own development. We are looking for the best and brightest but not all our emphasis is on academic ability alone. We look for raw potential and people who are really in line with our values and who can be a valuable member of the team in terms of communication and working as a team.”

New standards of apprenticeships

According to AAT’s recent research, 63% of small businesses surveyed say apprenticeships bring them staff who are more suited to their businesses and the skills they need. Alison Bate of FWD Training & Consultancy, which oversaw Hayes’ apprenticeship, working with his employer and contracting training First Intuition to deliver the technical side, says the new trailblazer standards are taking this “one step further”.

“It’s a good, rolling programme that helps people move with their career and it’s filling skills gaps to a certain extent. Now the professional industries that we work within are looking for people to have the technical background and professional qualifications but an [assessment] is only one part of it. The new standards are about putting those things into practice.

“It’s more streamlined to the individual roles as they’ve engaged with and been written by employers. It’s owned by the sector itself.”

Team support

To make it work there has to be a genuine business need for the roles that apprentices will take on, she adds: “For us, it was looking at the resource needs and matching available standards to the roles that we have. Chris’ team has been fantastic in structuring and being flexible so that he can have the time he needs. It’s really important that the whole business understands what the apprentice needs and is going through.”

Trailblazer apprenticeships help to bring the needs of all the parties involved to the fore but all stakeholders need to be open to make this model a success, says Stroud, not least about the challenges in meeting the requirements.

Organisations may find allowing apprentices 20% off-the-job training time challenging, for example, but, says Hunter: “It’s moving away from the mindset of ‘I don’t get the benefit of that time from the employee’. We must extract the evidence and show that they are learning and that when they go back into the workplace they are more productive, self-aware and efficient.”

Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.

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