Stop rushing apprentices through their training

Stop rushing apprentices through their training

Daniel Barr, Owner of Anglia Factors in Suffolk, explains why we need to stop rushing apprentices through their training.

Learning how to do a job properly takes time, you need to watch, understand, practice, make mistakes, try again, improve and perfect your skills. This is true no matter what industry you are in. It’s not just work either, you won’t find many people who can pick up a violin and instantly become a maestro. Even where there’s enormous raw talent it needs to be nurtured and finessed. It also needs to be put into context of how it fits into the wider objective. Think Luke Skywalker being shown how to use The Force.

Having spent 30-odd years in the industry I see, without doubt, that we’ve lost the depth of training and meticulousness that used to come with the longer-lasting apprenticeships of the past. The sad fact is that, whilst it may be true that we have better teaching methods these days, in many cases even the institutions responsible for teaching and training have lost sight of the context within which they are working. Fully understanding the importance and knock on effect of great training, or the lack of, is crucial.

With some colleges offering apprenticeships that last just one year, it’s clear the focus has shifted from quality to quantity. Why? Because there is a shortage of skilled workers. So we need to bring on more to fill that gap. But we need to bring on more skilled workers, not throw partially trained people out into workplace to do jobs they are inadequately prepared for.

The current, seemingly rushed and ill-thought-through, approach has a fundamental and worrying knock-on effect for consumers and the industry as a whole.

It’s fair to say that colleges can teach basic skills and, through apprenticeships, businesses can build on and develop these skills in a controlled real-life environment over time. But It’s this time element that it’s being overlooked, even though it’s critical to the development of the skills needed to do the job properly. Time on the job gives a tradesman the chance to develop his or her most valuable skill – the ability to adapt.

Through on the job training, apprentices and junior tradespeople are exposed to a wide range of real-life case studies where they can watch their mentors anticipate, navigate and overcome the unpredictable hurdles that can so easily derail or delay a project. These may come in the form of a unique and complex project brief, working with tricky or scarce materials, access to the site, or the surprising state of the existing wiring and plumbing, to name just a few. In these situations, no matter how good the teaching, the success of each project will hinge on the lead tradesperson’s initiative and ability to adapt quickly and effectively to the situation presented.  It is this ability – a combination of attitude, knowledge and experience – that delights customers, builds your reputation and ensures your future in the industry.

I think it’s time to double check that the industry and consumers are ok with the implications of this shift to shorter apprenticeships – which are compromised customer safety, damaged industry reputation and a profound change to the market

For example, we’re seeing an increase in newly ‘qualified’ apprentices opting to go self-employed straightaway and effectively ‘practice’ on real-life customers as they develop and hone their skills. Even if it were possible to learn all the theory in a one- or two-year apprenticeship, practice makes perfect. And while practising, it’s vital to have someone there to guide, check and demonstrate. Not just to make sure the customer is getting a great service, but as a minimum health and safety requirement. In our business, we’re talking about people meddling with the deadly combination of electricity, plumbing and supporting walls in people’s homes, where most of their money is invested and their most important people reside. It must be safe. It must be done properly.

Looking beyond the fundamental health and safety aspect, these ‘practicing tradespeople’ stand to cause serious damage to industry reputation. With the market flooded with inexperienced tradespeople offering what appears to the consumer to be the same service as more experienced experts, it gets harder for customers to find someone they can trust to do a good job. Before you know it consumers have lost faith, feel bewildered and embittered because of past experiences. It makes it tougher for them to find someone to trust and casts a shadow over all businesses in the sector.

Not only is it hard for consumers to distinguish between the services offered, these inexperienced self-employed ‘learner tradespeople’ are, in many cases charging the day rate of an experienced pro, even though the standard of work and capabilities are vastly different.

In many ways the industry only has itself to blame. Colleges offering ‘instant expert’ courses are responding to a need. Youngsters are correctly recognising a skills gap and looking to make a career in an under-supplied sector. There’s nothing wrong with that. Frustratingly, the industry reacts, not by offering more apprenticeships, where youngsters could ‘earn while they learn’ a trade, but, in many cases, by actively poaching apprentices trained by the few businesses still offering the programme. Which is likely to discourage these businesses from continuing to support apprenticeships, making the situation even worse. Those who don’t poach qualified apprentices, are having to use contractors to bolster their workforce, including these ‘learner tradespeople’ who overcharge for their skills. Neither is a sustainable model.

Despite all this, I believe apprenticeships are the best solution, so long as the majority of businesses offer them and they last long enough to be meaningful. If every company recruiting is also feeding new talent into the system, newly qualified apprentices could move between companies without issue. We could look to put in place a clearer, tiered qualification so consumers can clearly distinguish the skill-level of a tradesperson – and the pricing can better reflect the level of service on offer. My ideal would be a minimum of three years’ basis apprenticeship, with a further two years’ advanced level apprenticeship.

I’d also like to see evidence of more colleges taking stock of what employers are looking for and tailoring qualifications more toward the workplace to help us to bridge that gap between education and work. After all our industry’s objective isn’t to provide employment but to design, build and fit safe, long-lasting, great-looking kitchens and interiors!


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