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Associate feature: A game changer for industry

Apprentices from construction company Robertson Group. Image credit: SDS

Associate feature: A game changer for industry

Graduate apprenticeships are “fundamentally great for the business”, says Fraser Rowberry, director of service delivery at Openreach. The business currently has 13 graduate apprentices in areas such as IT, internet security and engineering.

“They get the practical side and they get the theory so they’re able to apply their learning there and then. There’s a bonus for us as a business and for the individuals, who are getting the education and the degree, but they’re able to apply the skills and learning in the workplace. That’s quite amazing for us,” he says.

This is echoed by Tony Elliott, director of HR at the Robertson Group, a construction and infrastructure services company: “It’s great because it means that we are getting a more productive graduate at the end of it.

“No disrespect to anyone that goes to university, but we tend to have to do quite a bit of work to ‘Robertsonise’ people once they come to us as an organisation. Whereas the graduate apprentices are actually working with us right the way   through.

“It’s worked really well and we’re massive advocates. Right at the beginning, we saw it could be a bit of a game changer for us as an industry.”

Introduced in 2017, graduate apprenticeships complement school-based foundation apprenticeships and the established modern apprenticeship pathway. Run as a partnership between business and universities, they allow participants to get a degree-level qualification, from DipHE up to Masters, at the same time as working.

With around 1,300 new places this year, there are expected to be about 3,700 graduate apprentices in training across 13 subject areas, all built around areas of critical skills need such as digital, cyber security, data and engineering.

The time and cost of ‘assimilating’ graduates into the business is also highlighted by Paul Campbell, Scottish Water’s head of learning and organisational development: “I think it’s the way of the future. It’s good for the individuals because they’re earning while they’re learning. And from an employer’s perspective, your speed to productivity is quicker.

“For someone who may have completed a qualification, but not had a depth of industry experience, it takes a period of time for someone to acclimatise, get to know the business, understand the way things work and then be able to really start applying themselves. But with graduate apprentices, you’ve got someone who’s actually becoming productive and learning at the same time, so it’s a faster process.”

For participants, the benefits are clear, offering the chance to take a degree while earning a wage and avoiding any student debt, as well as coming out with real-world experience rather than just theoretical knowledge. And because they already have their job, the risks of graduate unemployment or underemployment are minimised.

For businesses, the advantages are manifold. These include increased productivity, addressing skills gaps, widening the recruitment pool beyond those who would traditionally go to university and offering a further training route for those who have completed modern apprenticeships or existing staff who want to upskill.

And because they are shaped by industry, they actually offer what businesses want.

Rowberry, Campbell and Elliott are all members of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board, a group of employers from across different sectors that provides leadership and acts as the voice of industry to ensure apprenticeships are responsive to business need.

Because businesses have been actively involved in the design of apprenticeships, they’re “very relevant and contemporary”, says Campbell. “You’ve got the option of using graduate apprenticeships for new starts coming in and you also have the option of using them for existing employees who may be ready to take their careers to the next stage.”

Another member of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board, Helen Muir, HR director of Dawnfresh, a seafood wholesaler and aquaculture company, tells Holyrood: “I think it’s a fantastic programme and was absolutely delighted when it was brought in. I think time will tell that this will become a very popular way of organisations recruiting people or putting existing staff through qualifications.”

Dawnfresh currently has a graduate apprentice in business management who is already making a big impact on the business. Jordan Fairlamb was named Scottish Apprentice of the Year 2019 after saving the company hundreds of thousands of pounds through new initiatives he introduced.

Muir suggests that an advantage of graduate apprenticeships is the opportunity for employers to recognise talent early and fast-track rising stars. Muir says they also change the organisational dynamics for the better.

“They’re a great way to increase staff morale and engagement; even just having these young people in the businesses is fantastic. People like to be able to help train them, they enjoy the younger person. Apprentices bring some great ideas. They’re very creative. They’re much faster getting up to speed with technology, so there’s a lot of benefits to the business.”

Foster Group is a SME that specialises in roofing and solar panels. Maureen Douglas, the company’s HR director, also a member of the SAAB, sees the added appeal in recruiting and retaining staff: “The true way to attract talent and to develop people within your business is to keep them educated, engaged and up to speed with what’s going on in the world. We see the success of our business firmly embedded in the talent that we bring in, particularly around digital, because the world’s moving so quickly that we need to keep up to speed.

“We use that pipeline of knowledge to continually develop our own business, but to retain that talent, you have to provide opportunities to grow. They can’t be stuck in the same place – people want and expect different experiences now.

“That’s why I think graduate apprenticeships have been too long in coming. Traditionally, you would pick up graduates or anybody that’s been in full-time education and you have a fair bit of work to do with them. Not because their qualification wasn’t fit for purpose necessarily, but because they’ve not been able to apply and put things into practice. So, the beauty about the suite of apprenticeships coming through now, starting at foundation in secondary school to graduate apprenticeships, is that you can take talent and make them come to work and earn, which they love. They’re maybe not getting the same party life as perhaps some of us did when we did full-time education, but the balance is much better.”

Another positive consequence of employing graduate apprenticeships is the building of closer relationships with universities. Campbell says there’s a “real strong expectation for that to be a close working partnership”, which you wouldn’t have if the company simply sponsored somebody through university. 

However, he recognises that organisations need to have good structures in place to support apprentices, planning their work so that it aligns with the learning that they’re doing at university.

Campbell says: “Over time, as graduate apprenticeships develop, it brings industry and institutions much closer together and strengthens relationships. You’re hoping people get through their apprenticeships with a much better qualification and have learned a lot more as a result.”

Elliott echoes this: “Before, you were almost getting the graduate at the end of a programme, probably at the end of year three if they came to us as interns, but what this has allowed us to do is build a much closer working relationship with the universities.

“Universities would very rarely come to us and say, ‘What do you think of this degree programme? Do you think it looks right?’ Whereas as the sector, but also as Robertson the organisation, we’ve actually got a chance to shape these apprenticeships.”

Looking to the future, employers predict growing demand for graduate apprenticeships. Campbell highlights his experience: “I chair the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board Employer Engagement Group – a group of employers from different industries all across Scotland. There’s a very big pull for graduate apprenticeships.

“There’s a real appetite to do more and to have more of them. There’s been a lot of ambition in the last couple of years and it’s grown rapidly. That’s been great, but my sense is that there’s certainly a lot of appetite in the business world to have more of them.”

Elliott agrees that changes in the construction industry are likely to drive demand. He said: “Our sector has changed massively over the last five or six years. It’s much more around the digital skills. For us as an organisation, probably as a sector, digital skills are critical. And I’d like to see more growth in the business management side as well, which I know a few of the other universities are looking at.”

Douglas highlights the critical role of employers in influencing the skills system. She explains: “I would like to see the future expansion of apprenticeships being driven by industry and their requirements. I don’t want to be too led by colleges and training providers because they will drive what works for them.

“I want it to be led by sector skills plans and local regional plans, where you can see the pipeline and actually drive apprenticeship programmes that will support growth and innovation in Scotland, making it about the learners and about genuine demand.” 

The Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board is led by employers and representatives from industry bodies across a range of sectors and provides employer leadership and contributes to the development of apprenticeships in Scotland.

The Centre for Work-Based Learning is a partnership between higher education establishments and the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board, supporting the drive for cultural change and the demand for high quality work-based learning in Scotland.

This piece was sponsored by Skills Development Scotland.

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