Apprenticeships can be life-changing experiences for people, says Matt O’Conner. It’s one of the reasons the managing director of John O’Conner says it was eager to start its own apprenticeship programme back in 2011. That, and recruitment challenges on top of an ageing workforce. It was difficult to fill supervisory roles and find new talent. So, the grounds maintenance provider decided to take action and encourage upskilling amongst its own ranks as well as support the next generation.
It now has around 15 apprentices that it’s supporting, and not just in horticulture. John O’Conner also employs apprentices in HR, digital and business management. O’Conner himself has become a real advocate for the scheme, taking on the role of chair of the East of England National Apprenticeship Ambassador Network, a scheme hosted by the Department of Education.
There is a problem across all sectors, though, in apprenticeships being completed. It’s something that the government is trying to address, says O’Conner; but there are things that companies can do to attract and retain apprentices too. To celebrate National Apprenticeship Week, O’Conner has shared a series of tips for employers who are looking to embrace apprenticeships and help to fill the skills gap.
1. Understand the apprenticeship
“Take a step back and understand what the apprenticeship journey will look like and the expected completion times, because there can be different completion times depending on the level of qualification. That’s the best place to start,” says O’Conner.
Once you understand this, you should then explore training providers, some of which might be office based and others might be online. “You want to ensure that there are some face-to-face interactions, and some might ask for one day a week at college whilst others are block release. Colleges and private training providers have got different ideas, so go and speak to a couple to see which one best fits your organisation.”
2. Ensure your onboarding is suitable
“Offer a really good induction programme to set clear examples of what you expect from an apprentice, whether they’re an existing employee who’s been with you for 10 years or a school leave taking on their first employment opportunity,” advises O’Conner. Match the onboarding to their skillset and, if they’ve never had a job in the workplace before, O’Conner suggests addressing some of the ‘soft skills’ involved as well, such as teamwork, problem solving, communication and time management.
3. Allocate a buddy, mentor and line manager
“They can be the same person, but it’s better for it to be at least two separate people,” says O’Conner. “A buddy might be a colleague that they’re working with on a day-to-day basis, so make sure you introduce them properly. This creates a safe space where the apprentice can talk to someone without worrying about it being a stupid question or when they don’t walk to talk to a supervisor about something. It has to be someone who’s interested but not necessarily the person responsible for helping to deliver the apprenticeship programme – a confidante and a safe pair of hands.”
John O’Conner has apprentice mentors, who tend to be ex-apprentices themselves. They have more experience of the apprenticeship programme and what should be achieved, ensuring that the training is on track and that they’re getting the best work experience. “If it’s a larger company, they’ll make sure that the apprentice is not just stuck in one team and is moving around. In a smaller company, this tends to happen anyway as there tends to be a variety of jobs.”
The line manager – who could also be the mentor – will then speak to the college on a regular basis, to review the previous month – what the apprentice has been working on, whether they’re on track and where they’re excelling or struggling – and what they have coming up in their training to align the work environment with this and gain insight. “It’s all too easy to let other priorities get in the way, but doing this can make such a difference to an apprentice’s journey, knowing that they have someone supporting them and who is interested in their training.”
4. Consider enrichment
Whilst programmes such as arboricultural apprenticeships can include additional certifications such as in chainsaw maintenance and climbing, horticultural apprentices usually need to pay for separate courses on using hand tools and spraying, for instance. An employer could choose to put an apprentice through these additional qualifications after a period of time.
This is just one option, though. “You could also encourage them to go to a trade show with another member of the team who is going to be networking when they’re there and speaking with suppliers. They can then start building connections and a level of authority.”
At John O’Conner, apprentices are sometimes taken up to the workshops where the machinery is fixed to better understand how that process works but also what makes a “good employee” to the mechanics – what they’re looking for from their colleagues. Or they could spend the day with a key supplier or subcontractor. “That enrichment can be quite powerful.”
Then there’s “soft skills” – O’Conner isn’t a fan of the term because he views them as essential skills, such as effectively communicating with people in an email or putting together a quote. “You don’t have to introduce these all at once; most apprenticeships are 12 to 18 months as a minimum so you have time. But take advantage when opportunities arise.”
5. Make them feel part of the team
“It can be quite isolating being an apprentice, especially if you’re in an SME – which most companies are in the landscaping sectors – as you might be the only apprentice at that company and your friends might be getting that university experience. That’s where the Apprentice Ambassador Network (AAN) is helpful; it’s made up of volunteers who can help support them. Those who join the network might get the opportunity to mix with other apprentices from other organisations and maybe not feel quite so alone. It comes back to enrichment too; it might help with their development, knowledge, skills and behaviours for that endpoint assessment.”