Apprenticeships. Look Closer and See More

More than just a course. More than just a job 

The concept of an apprentice is a popular, tried and tested method of training individuals in a variety of traditional and modern occupations. Training, coupled with real world experience and hands on practice under the guidance of seasoned professionals is the dream of many an employer.

But does the modern apprenticeship model work, and what does it give back to the individual and the sponsor when all is said and done?

Cloud Change

The IT World in particular is on course for a monumental transition within the next few years as the cloud grows ever stronger and most small and some medium sized businesses look to become more flexible, less costly, and far outreaching than before. On face value, this presents a worrying issue for the IT Apprentice, who by very nature is only just starting out in their career in technology. Couple this with, as has been quoted at every opportunity, ‘the worst recession in living memory’, the jobs market [2011] has been saturated with highly skilled workers so desperate for work that no job (or pay scale) is too low, giving employers great choice and ruthless attitudes over who they take on.

So it is not just apprentices that are and will suffer in the coming months and year, but all entry level IT staff, unless significant upskilling is taken. But this is not the only option.

Role

Some time ago I began researching the positions UK IT apprentices held across all sectors. The results are not surprising in that the majority hold IT Technician-type roles within most companies; popular within the education sector in particular, or ‘IT User’ roles within office-based environments. Unsurprising also, although not immediately obvious though was that they all held support positions of some description, either supporting customers or internal staff. But actually giving a supporting, front-line role to an ‘unskilled, inexperienced individual’ who often are lacking communication skills and confidence; a fact I only need to look at my own learners for confirmation of, which is purely a statement of known fact.

Since that time I have injected a new direction into the young individuals I work with to ensure they (and in turn) are getting the best level of training and experiences available to them, and that direction is not solely focussed on the technology but rather the personable qualities that is stereotypically lacking in technical staff. Again, a statement of known fact. This change of focus has yielded in just 6 months tremendous change in the enthusiasm, quality of work and indirectly feedback from their customer, to both them and me.  The changes have centralised on several main aspects:

  • Apprentices are given full control, with guidance by the forward-thinking employers and their tutors, over their apprenticeship in terms of the work they complete, when where and how and even what they believe should and shouldn’t be assessed.
  • Transparency between the tutor and the apprentice; the learner knows everything the tutor knows and is kept fully updates with any new developments personally and professionally.
  • Almost total freedom of choice (again with cooperation from the employer) when it comes to the technical certification, which in the new batch of ICT qualification includes Cisco and Microsoft examinable certifications. All apprentices have the option to take up to 4 professional qualifications (Cisco, Microsoft, CompTIA) as part of their qualification, worth around £4000 in training costs, earning them a MCITP or a CCNA title.

Personal Qualities

But the main aspect of change is a shift from the technical to the personable in terms of the level of work put into training and experiencing of customer service and interaction, and this is not purely for the benefit of qualification, or even the job, but for the individual (and ergo the employer) and their first steps in a 40 year career.  With the afore mentioned transparency between tutor and learner, I am fully literal with my discussions with them when we talk about their career path. I know for a concrete fact that this is purely a stepping stone for these young individuals onto a position requiring experience and skills, and for their employers they know and often encourage that fact; and between us encourage the apprentices to grab everything they can during the time they have learning, and making use of everyone’s skills and experiences.

With this in mind, each apprenticeship is turned around and makes the individual take responsibility for their career. I will get them through the apprenticeship, but how much they get out of it is their decision, and I will give as much as they want. I run additional class days on customer service, confidence building and communications, and am in the process of organising individual ‘job-change’ days with certain employers whereby their apprentice can on another role and experience new aspects to their job. Not for the qualification’s benefit, but for the apprentice and to help them see what else the world holds (albeit within the same company). I also offer the opportunity for them to self-study for further technical examinations (often self-funded but some employers are generous to pay for these), using free eLearning material.

The story does not end even when the have their certificates. Often they have the option for the next level in qualification and an extension to their apprenticeship, including the introduction of a foundation degree equivalent level of apprenticeship.

And when it is the end and hands are shaken, every single apprentice completed so far I would not hesitate to recommend for their next position; the next step in their career, and I can be proud of what they have achieved.

But what does this give to employers? Well above all it gives them some amount of freedom in taking on an individual, training them (which arguably they would need to be doing with any new employee) and having the option to keep them at the end as a custom-moulded IT expert to develop further; giving greater return to the business than the initial outlay in time and training. Or, if not that option, knowing that they have given a great service to the IT sector and more importantly to the individual, as well as having had them in company for around 2 years at (potentially) half the cost of a fully trained professional, and safe in the knowledge that they can essentially ‘try again’ with the next apprentice.

So, does the modern apprenticeship model work? Of course it does, but only with the right mind set as to what everyone involved wants to achieve, from employer to apprentice, with the right tutor in-between.

Graham Reed

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Posted in Apprenticeships

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