It’s never too late to learn

Apprenticeships are no longer the confine of 16-year-old school-leavers; today the intake is often older and better qualified. Utilities should respond appropriately, says Marc Oakley.

Apprenticeships and “learn while you earn” schemes are on the rise and starting to have a positive impact at closing the skills  gap. Utility employers such as National Grid, British Gas, EDF Energy, Scottish Water and UK Power Networks have a long-standing heritage, even in economically challenging times, of nurturing talent through apprenticeship programmes.
However, in recent years, behavioural change and development specialist the Outward Bound Trust has observed a marked change in the makeup of apprentices entering the utilities sector. Through its work with the likes of National Grid and EDF, it has seen increasing numbers of more mature candidates, some already equipped with Level 6 or 7 qualifications, opting to become apprentices. In the case of National Grid, over 50 per cent of its 2012 intake was over the age of 25, many of them with a degree or Master’s qualification.
Similarly, from 2008 onwards, EDF Energy noted a fall in the number of 16-year-old candidates and a rise in the number of 18-year-old candidates, suggesting an increase in the popularity of earn while you learn schemes versus the traditional university pathway. If sector skills organisation Energy & Utility Skills is successful in lobbying for government support for employers recruiting 19-24-year-olds, we may see a rise in older apprenticeship intakes across the sector.
Traditionally a male-dominated sector, utilities are also seeing an increase in female apprentice recruitment. A host of benefits can be gained from a diverse workforce and women can play a key role in business innovation, creativity and problem-solving. Interestingly, EDF Energy has seen its intake of female apprentices soar in recent times, with the 2013 intake 19 per cent female. EDF has around 260 apprentices on its four-year scheme at any one time, so these age, qualification and gender patterns are not insignificant.
Sarah Battersby, 43-year-old mother of one, on British Gas’s Information Services apprenticeship programme, is one such example of the changing face of apprenticeships. With a PhD in social psychology and a background in academia, she joined British Gas after coming across the vacancy advertised as being open to lone parents. Her first week was spent on a challenging Outward Bound programme in Aberdovey, Snowdonia, with her new colleagues, many of whom were also “second jobbers”.
The changing profile of apprenticeships is not limited to utilities. Across the board in 2012/13, almost 264,000 starters were aged 19-24, according to the department for Business Innovation & Skills. In the same year, more than 2,000 apprenticeship opportunities were taken up by over-60s. Within the engineering and manufacturing sector, which includes the utility market, figures show a rise of female apprentices from 3.9 per cent in 2008/09 to 9 per cent in 2011/12.
With a broader range of candidates enrolling in apprenticeship schemes, organisations are starting to look more closely at their development and training needs. Traditional forms of on-site training continue to teach specific skills for the job, but there is an increasing recognition that soft skill development such as leadership, team work and resilience are also key to helping individuals achieve their full potential. This is particularly important as utility providers begin to bring on board a greater number of more mature and well qualified candidates.
No longer tasked with simple or basic contributions to business, apprentices are increasingly being given responsibility for time and safety critical projects, meaning that it is essential for them to gain an understanding of leadership. The focus for apprentices is often on gaining devolved people leadership skills, learning how to lead a specific team, to become more effective and develop team dynamics.
Steve Naylor, EDF’s Nuclear Power Academy training manager, says: “We aim to develop apprentices’ life skills as part of their technical apprenticeship. The Outward Bound programme introduces them to leadership and risk management situations, which they have not encountered before, and allows them to grow as individuals in a safe, managed environment.”
As the shape of apprenticeship candidates in the utilities sector has changed, organisations may also need to manage performance expectations. Challenging and encouraging apprentices’ expectations of what they can achieve helps nurture their progression. Typically, many apprentices join an organisation with little expectation to climb the career ladder, but today’s managers should make efforts to raise these expectations. The trust has found that by giving opportunities for apprentices to experience success, many gain confidence and raise their aspirations. Indeed, Sarah Battersby at British Gas says: “I’ve always lacked confidence in my own abilities, but everything about this apprenticeship has made me realise that the only thing holding me back is myself.”
It is also important to reset your own expectations and those of the senior teams around you of your apprentices’ capabilities. With more experience, maturity and aptitude than before, apprentices are now rivalling graduates in terms of what they can achieve.
As the introduction of Level 6 and 7 apprenticeships gathers steam, it is likely that the sector will continue to attract increasingly capable candidates. All we need to do is make sure that our development programmes can meet the needs and match the pace of this new-look early talent.
Marc Oakley, head of the Outward Bound Trust’s Corporate Learning and Development Centre