Time to start talking retention in apprenticeships

April 27, 2018 / Keith Osborne
Time to start talking retention in apprenticeships

The housebuilding industry’s shortage of skilled workers isn’t going away, and even with more apprenticeship opportunities on offer, a high proportion of the young people learning these trade skills are giving up before completing them.

We speak to Stav Aristokle Hill, REACH Apprenticeship Programme manager for Berkeley Homes (Capital) plc, about her thoughts on this issue and how the company is leading the way in adapting apprenticeships to keep talented youngsters on board.

Is the industry’s urgent need for apprentices being taken seriously enough?

National Apprenticeship Week this year triggered a flurry of commentary and debate on everything from the government levy to the target of three million apprenticeships by 2020. But there was one issue that was notable in its absence – and that’s retention.

With a marked slump in the number of people taking apprenticeships, it’s no surprise that the focus has been on getting new starters through the door. But the reality is that once people start an apprenticeship scheme, they are not always staying. Government figures indicate that one in three apprentices failed to complete their apprenticeship programme in 2015-16.

Why is retention such a problem?

The question of why is a complex one, and the quality of schemes is undoubtedly a concern, with an ongoing inquiry by the Education Committee. But there’s also an issue with the level of support and mentoring on offer.

With the focus on gaining qualifications, we’re losing sight of the apprentices going through the system and the individual challenges they face – from financial pressures at home to discrepancies between what they expected from their apprenticeship, and what they are actually getting. Monitoring and tackling these challenges as they occur can make the difference between an apprentice sticking at it or throwing in the towel.

And then of course, there’s the reality of the world of work. Recent research by the Prince’s Trust shows that young people’s happiness and confidence levels are at a record low. Meanwhile, the Intergenerational Commission has revealed that a third of millennials simply don’t believe there are genuine prospects out there for them. Offering qualifications and preparing apprentices to do a job is therefore not enough – we need to equip them with the skills and self-belief to make a career out of it.

What can be done to make those career prospects clearer?

Of course, there’s no silver bullet, but when it comes to support and mentoring there is much more that could be done. As a sector, we can start with changing the way we structure and approach apprenticeships.

The REACH Apprenticeship Programme was established by Berkeley Homes (Capital) Plc in 2016. Like many, it’s a structured apprenticeship scheme created to tackle the industry’s skills gap and provide meaningful employment opportunities to people within the London boroughs in which we work. What sets it apart, however, is that as well as training and on the job learning, apprentices benefit from an extensive programme of support from business champions and mentors, with a focus on building team spirit and boosting self-esteem and confidence.

What are the factors making REACH so successful?

Continued communication and dialogue is key. As our apprentices are spread across a variety of sites, each site has a dedicated mentor who acts as a crucial point of contact. A specialist REACH team also meets every month with the mentor, the subcontractor, the apprentice and the college to review progress. This is an invaluable opportunity to discuss any personal or professional challenges an apprentice is facing and implement changes. Only the other month, for example, we had a situation where an apprentice was struggling with financial pressures at home and worrying about travel and food costs at work. Simply by offering lunch vouchers and a travel card, we were able to alleviate these worries and encourage the apprentice in question to stick with it.

There are also aspects of the scheme that are aimed at building team spirit and developing the individual’s self-confidence and esteem, such as an Outward Bound Trust trip. This week-long course is available to all REACH apprentices and explores areas such as confidence, leadership, negotiation, and stress. By pro-actively working on softer skills such as these, we hope to ensure our apprentices are equipped not just to deliver a particular skill or trade but to deal with any challenges that a career in this industry might throw at them.

What are the priorities in improving the appeal of an apprenticeship?

Putting the emphasis on meaningful careers, rather than just ‘jobs’, is critical. There’s no doubt that a direct line of sight into employment or further progression makes a huge difference to an apprentice’s determination to continue. We’ve therefore ensured there are a range of career development options available to apprentices completing our programme – from joining the supply chain as either a next-generation tradesperson or advanced apprentice, to working towards a supervisory or management position.

Of course, there is still some way to go, but this must increasingly be the direction of travel for our sector. Government targets to increase the number of apprentices coming into our industry are admirable but they will be in vein unless we ensure these apprentices are met with a supportive, inclusive environment geared towards long-term careers and learning. To ignore the potential challenges ahead would be to rob our sector of a generation of potential talent. Yes, we need to focus on recruitment, but it’s time to start talking retention too.


The REACH Apprenticeship scheme runs across seven London boroughs: Enfield; Haringey; Hackney; Islington; Southwark; Tower Hamlets; and Newham. Applications for the latest round of recruitment close today (Friday 27 April) and the next scheme opens in April 2019.

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