keeping apprentices engaged

A new NCVER good practice guide homes in on the characteristics of employers with the highest apprenticeship completion rates.

The National Centre for Vocation Education Research (NCVER) has released another in its series of Good Practice Guides. A guide to providing social support for apprentices (4 pages) provides a tight summary of the actions that employers can take to ensure that the workplace offers integrated support for young apprentices (aged 16-24) that will help sustain their health and wellbeing.

The culture of the employing organisation makes a big difference

The guide is based on a detailed NCVER research study, Beyond mentoring: social support structures for young Australian carpentry apprentices (69 pages). The research study drew on

… eight case studies involving both small and large organisations across some of Australia’s leading firms and group training organisations, specifically those with apprentice completion rates sitting at around 90%, well above the industry average. The report identifies the forms of social support successfully provided to young carpentry apprentices.

Both the guide and the research study are concerned with the strong links between health, wellbeing and apprenticeship completion. There is concern nationally about the low levels of apprenticeship completion and the research study points to analysis showing that for those who commenced an apprenticeship in 2007, just 55% completed. But that broad brush concern can miss important variations in where completion rates occur. It isn’t so much the trade field of the apprentice that makes the difference – it’s the organisation an apprentice works for that has substantial influence. The research study points to research from 2011 (see page 23) which showed that:

Amongst top-tier employers and apprentices, completion rates were approximately 80%. Amongst the lowest tier, they were approximately 25%.

Characteristics of a high-performance culture for apprentices

The research study set out to identify the characteristics of employers at the top end of the top tier. The good practice guide reflects those characteristics. The guide acknowledges the role of formal mentoring arrangements in supporting apprentices but takes us a step further by showing that it is often informal support that has the greatest impact – it’s ‘the way we do things around here’, or the culture of the employing organisation, that counts most.

The guide points to seven characteristics exhibited by employers that engage apprentices in their learning, build their employment competence, and strengthen their health and wellbeing. These characteristics, as presented in the guide, include:

  • A ‘culture of craft’ and a ‘culture of caring’ – demonstrating a willingness to work through issues and encourage an environment where apprentices are able to ask questions. Do not assume these aspects of your business are transparent.
  • A comprehensive approach to skills development and human capability – a well-designed apprenticeship model of learning can simultaneously develop quality vocational skills and personal support for apprentices; it provides the context for apprentices feeling comfortable to discuss personal problems. A key support for apprentices is to be accepted as a valued member of the workplace.
  • Help with career development – don’t leave this to chance or for the apprentice to do it in isolation.
  • Quality on-the-job training – not all senior tradespeople are the best trainers; model a culture of sharing skills and provide training alternatives. Recognise and support the individual learning styles of each apprentice.

Rethinking support for apprentices

In Australia we have implemented a range of formal apprenticeship mentoring schemes. The schemes link an apprentice with a mentor either inside or outside their employing organisation. These schemes are important but not sufficient. There is a bigger job to do yet, and that is to assist employing organisations to strengthen their internal culture so that there is wrap-around support rather than formal one-to-one support only.