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How to find and keep your perfect apprentice

M&E contractor EIC offers pointers on implementing an effective apprenticeship programme – and how to avoid the pitfalls.

Taking on apprentices is very different to recruiting for other jobs, as apprentices can’t demonstrate competence of performing the job from the outset.

While those applying for mechanical and electrical apprenticeships do need some academic skills, we are a trade that uses our hands.

Your selection criteria should include things like whether they are practical, do they show enthusiasm, are they good communicators and likeable, as well as whether they apply common sense to their thinking.

Whether they have the means to get themselves to site is also an important consideration.

Make sure you can expose them to as many elements of their trade disciplines as possible, as early as possible.

This gives them a wide knowledge and helps them appreciate the needs of other trades on site.

I always ask apprentices to show me what they have done on a task or installation, and we discuss how well they think they did and what they would do differently next time.

Allow for pride

Apprentices are always very proud of their achievements.

It may be just a short length of pipe they have installed, but if they did it and the managing director is taking an interest, that’s a huge boost to their self-esteem.

“Apprentices will have a different perspective on things that can be really useful for the business’s own development”

It is great to see the pride coming through.

Because they are an important part of any workforce, get them involved in groups, committees or initiatives.

They will have a different perspective on things that can be really useful for the business’s own development.

It’s important to link your apprentices up with an experienced tradesman who can act as a mentor.

This really helps their integration into the business and boosts their confidence as they develop their skills.

In addition, we find our tradesmen really appreciate the business taking on apprentices, seeing it as a clear demonstration of our investment in the future and in their security.

Make sure you are very clear about the potential roles an apprentice could move to once the apprenticeship is complete.

This is a four-year journey and they need to know what they are striving towards and what their goals are along the way.

Limitless potential

Make it clear that there are no limits – I went on to become an MD.

There will be apprentices who want to go on to design, estimating and project management.

Some will want to obtain further qualifications, some won’t. The point is, the world’s their oyster.

In the UK, 64 per cent of apprentices stay with the same employer, and it is our aim to recruit all of our protégés once they are fully certified.

Lastly, instil your company’s core values in your apprentices and make it clear what excellence looks like from the start.

At EIC, our apprentices are fully encouraged to adopt our ethos in terms of commitment, delivery and customer support.

In essence, if we expect to see effective communication and fair behaviour from our leaders, we need to instil these qualities in our future leaders.

Top five pitfalls to avoid in apprenticeship programmes

1) Don’t treat apprenticeships as an afterthought, but a key part of your workforce strategy. Grassroots investment will help your business and brand, demonstrating a commitment to the delivery of high-quality services.
It also reassures customers that you have the skills to carry out both current and future contracts. Having a robust interview process that ensures candidates are a good cultural fit is key to this.

2) Don’t just dole out mundane site jobs to them.
As a former electrical apprentice, I know what a sense of achievement there is for a young apprentice when they find solutions to tasks set and the challenges that crop up.
This goes a long way in keeping them stimulated and more of an asset to your company in the longer term.

3) Don’t underestimate the importance of praise: it goes a long way in making apprentices feel valued and heightens their sense of loyalty to your organisation.
Awards of a formal nature go a long way, but the little things matter, too.
Simply saying thank you is a powerful tool that we all have but don’t use enough.

4) Mentors need to appreciate that the current generation is very different to teenagers 30 years ago.
Many are technical whizz kids who bring energy to our business and we should use this to our advantage.
Encouraging the swapping of knowledge between mentor and apprentice will benefit your business in the long term.

5) Taking on apprentices gives you the chance to grow your workforce, so you need to commit to the journey.
Don’t end an apprenticeship until the apprentice has obtained a qualification, completed their training and you feel that they are ready to be a fully-fledged, confident and productive professional in their trade.
Don’t cut them off on their journey. In hard times, it might be seen as an easy way to cut costs, but that’s short-sighted thinking. They are the future of our industry.

John Harris is managing director at EIC

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