Comment: Attract, retain, excel - rethinking apprenticeships

As National Apprenticeship Week kicks off, Mike McNicholas, AtkinsRéalis Managing Director – Infrastructure, UK & Ireland, believes the UK needs to adapt to a changing careers landscape.   

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The skills shortage our industry faces is well-documented: the IET suggests over 170,000 vacancies are already costing £1.5bn annually, an issue that will only exacerbate as STEM skills reduce while the scale of infrastructure transformation increases over the next few decades.

Business As Usual isn’t an option: attracting and retaining the next generation into our industry needs multiple entry points and multiple career pathways. Apprenticeships have powerful potential to help bridge the skills gap, but are we getting it right as an industry?

In the past seven years, UK engineering and manufacturing apprenticeship starts have fallen nearly 40 per cent[1]. Apprenticeships in ICT and construction, planning and the built environment saw some growth but not enough to make up for the overall shortfall in engineering-related subjects. Worse, completion rates stubbornly sit around the 51 per cent mark. The government, rather ambitiously, wants to push this up to 67 per cent by next year, but it paints a worrying picture that needs to be addressed.

To me, the key to completion lies in the structure we provide.

Apprenticeships have to be meaningful: they need to provide viable and attractive career journeys for young people, and they need to build knowledge and specialisms that will help to tackle future skills shortages.

To boost completion rates and create an effective apprenticeship system, we have to provide apprentices with the same level of structure and support as we do for other career routes and provide them with clarity of destination: an apprenticeship is the beginning of a career, not an on-the-job training course with an end date.

Prioritise retention for young professionals

Employers need to account for the fluid nature of young people’s career goals and strike a balance of allowing apprentices to chart their own career while providing more structure at later stages to mitigate the risk of apprentices bouncing between schemes. As an industry we must also prioritise investment in support systems, from mentorship programmes and accessible resources to a commitment to an inclusive culture and more face time (particularly in a post-COVID, hybrid environment).

Since launching our apprenticeship programme around a decade ago at AtkinsRéalis, we’ve seen our apprentice numbers grow from a handful to more than 600 across our 14,000-strong UK and Ireland workforce.

We’ve strived to make the apprentice experience as close as possible to the graduate experience: from how we induct, support and develop our apprentices, through to how we celebrate success upon programme completion.

Create an adaptable curriculum

What currently meets the criteria of an apprenticeship is too rigid in some cases and risks falling out of step with contemporary demand: engineering’s rapidly changing nature means apprenticeship programmes must be flexible and adaptable.

In 2019, nearly 70 per cent of our apprentices were on an engineering apprenticeship but it’s now less than 50 cent, reflecting the range of specialties as we adapt to the changing environment and scale up digital capabilities.

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We’re evolving our apprenticeship scheme to accommodate new and specialist skills, such as cybersecurity and information management, shifting the boundaries of what it means to be a part of the engineering industry. Enabling this should be front and centre of the government’s recruitment and retention targets.

Employers need to be actively involved in shaping the curriculums, so we are creating meaningful and relevant apprenticeships, with government ready to adapt its funding models. Apprenticeship Standards must be regularly updated to accommodate the rise of emerging technology skills.

Regional balancing

A persistent challenge is education providers being concentrated in large cities. This can drain talent from the regions and undermines industry’s ambition to empower local offices to employ local people.

Although the proliferation of online learning has helped to shift this dial, I want to see a faster shift to help level up the regions, with a focus on more employer-centric apprenticeships. Our 600 apprentices are spread across 35 offices: by their nature, apprentices learn by doing, so programmes need more emphasis to be placed on employer proximity rather than education providers. We’re a nationwide industry, we need nationwide coverage.

A critical piece in the puzzle

Apprenticeships have made their mark on the industry and vocational training is increasingly on the radar of school-leavers looking to fast-track into the world of employment. National Apprenticeship Week is cause for celebration of their value, but we need to do far more to maximise and grow this talent source within our industry.

To plug the skills gap and turn around trends in completion, we need more collaboration, more adaptability in the system, and far more awareness of the career possibilities we offer. If we can get this right, thousands of apprentices across the UK could take advantage of the opportunities on the horizon in the coming decades and excel in our industry.

Mike McNicholas is Managing Director – Infrastructure, UK & Ireland at AtkinsRéalis

[1] Engineering UK