In many ways, there has never been a more confusing time to recruit someone into an entry-level role. Despite years of steadfast attempts to simplify the system, it has never been more bureaucratic. Nor have the stats ever been more contradictory.
The apprenticeship levy was supposed to kickstart a sluggish apprentice market, but the number of people taking up offers in the three months after it was introduced dropped 61 per cent. Achieving its ambition to recruit three million apprentices before 2020 looks increasingly unlikely, while critics of the new funding system argue for reform – and fast. Almost a fifth of levy-paying organisations surveyed by the CIPD said they simply planned to write off the money that came out of their payroll for the levy as a tax, while 22 per cent had not yet decided how to spend it.
Hot on the heels of that study, High Fliers Research found that the number of graduates being recruited by major employers also fell, by 5 per cent in 2017. But if it sounds like no one is getting a first foot on the career ladder, that isn’t quite the case. Businesses may be waiting to make sense of the bureaucracy and funding requirements of the revamped system. And many may just feel there has never been more choice in who to hire.
“The number of talent streams available has been growing for a while. The weight is still in the graduate market for our members, but you could say that the levy has added fuel to a fire that was burning already,” says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers. “Some sectors have moved quicker on the levy than others – for example in digital or engineering where there are skills shortages – and many of these employers already had the infrastructure in place. Others have been slower as they needed to build the framework or have been wedded to recruiting graduates.”
For young people themselves, the picture isn’t necessarily any clearer. “They don’t always know what careers exist and what the expectations are of them in these careers,” says Laura-Jane Rawlings, CEO of Youth Employment UK. “They have little careers advice, no quality work experience because it’s not a statutory requirement, and there aren’t even as many Saturday jobs as there used to be. So as HR and business people, we tend to project our own experiences on to them, and that’s not their reality.” Rawlings adds that there are many employers where the HR department is pushing to invest in apprenticeships or other early career routes, only to find that “managers don’t want to take on a 16-year-old”.
But Lizzie Crowley, skills policy adviser at the CIPD, argues that they might be pleasantly surprised. “For those that haven’t recruited young people before, the time constraints and additional capacity required to ensure it’s a success can put them off, so employers have been risk-averse,” she says. “But data from the government’s Employer Perspectives Survey shows those that have recruited via these routes have been very happy with young people’s preparedness for work.”
The good news is that plenty of companies are beginning to seize the initiative. And many more want to use their levy funds, or inject fresh talent into the organisation at a time when unemployment is near record lows, but are unsure which option is right for them. It’s here where the experiences of seasoned entry-level recruiters can be invaluable. Take, for example, the trend for graduate-focused employers to invest in apprenticeships. Companies such as EY and PwC now have established apprenticeship options, many of which lead up to a degree-level or management qualification.
“Once an organisation ‘gets’ that you don’t necessarily have to have a graduate for a particular role, they really get it,” says Ben Rowland, co-founder of Arch Apprentices, which runs digital and IT apprenticeships. “Now these big names have moved assertively to say you don’t need a degree to work here, that sends a strong message.” The structured nature of apprenticeship qualifications also appeals, he adds: “Often, graduate programmes aren’t necessarily programmes – they may rotate graduates around different departments, but that’s not a way to onboard someone into a specific role. With apprenticeship programmes, there’s a clear plan with a beginning, middle and end.”
When thinking about your early careers mix, the best place to start is with a view of where your hiring needs are, advises Rowland. “It takes a lot of stakeholders for apprenticeships to happen successfully, so you need a shared view of why you’re doing it. Is it to bring more diversity into your business? Or because a different recruitment route for certain roles isn’t working?” Following that, look at the approved standards that are available and how they fit in with the skills you require. With employers now more in control of funding thanks to the levy, training suppliers will be keen to sell qualifications, so retain a commercial instinct, he adds.
“Training providers vary enormously in quality. There are lots of solid ones in established sectors, but in others there might not even be a training provider or they won’t be based near you. Get them to explain how [their training] works and the benefits – if you don’t like the answer, they might not be for you,” says Rowland. “Also, having multiple providers is not the end of the world. Having one training provider that says they can do everything and is useless will be a nightmare.”
Fleet management business BT Fleet Solutions, which won the People Management Award for best apprenticeship scheme in 2017, needed a provider that could offer a wide scope of skills for its vehicle technicians. “Many of the apprenticeships elsewhere in the BT Group we deliver ourselves, but we need to give our apprentices a broad range of experience across a wide range of vehicles,” says Stephen Webb, head of HR. “They could be working on an Openreach van in the morning and a HGV lorry or plant machinery in the afternoon, so they have to be the best trained in the business.”
BT Fleet opted to work with Warwickshire College, which also trains mechanics for Jaguar Land Rover. BT Fleet provides its own vehicles, tools and diagnostic equipment so apprentices are trained on the same equipment they’ll use back in the garage. The company also works closely with a range of colleges and schools on attracting more women via its ‘girls into engineering’ outreach programme and, in the long term, its courses will help upskill the existing workforce in new developments such as electric and autonomous vehicles.
Not being a consumer brand, one of the issues for BT Fleet was getting its name out there. “BT might be an obvious place if you’re interested in technology but not if you’re a mechanic, despite the fact we’re one of the biggest fleet operations in Europe,” says Webb.
This was a challenge shared by technology consulting firm Capgemini, despite the fact that it was an early adopter of degree apprenticeships. “We’ve used current graduates and apprentices to share our story, and social media and traditional job boards to advertise roles,” says Stephanie Bishop, head of graduate and apprenticeship recruitment. Its graduate/apprentice recruitment mix has remained static at around 70 apprentices a year versus 200 or more graduates, but the levy has raised awareness in some parts of the company that there are multiple entry-level routes available, or additional training options for existing employees.
She adds: “Some parts of the business that hadn’t considered an apprentice before are now thinking about it, and we’re also bringing in graduates and putting them through apprenticeships as a way of reskilling them; for example, in cybersecurity. This is also something we could offer to women returners or ex-military candidates.”
Fujitsu, which also recruits apprentices for its IT consulting business, took a mixed approach to attracting candidates. “We needed to understand where all stakeholders were coming from,” says Mark Jackson, head of internal mobility and talent acquisition. “With graduates, you can attend fairs and there are websites where people know to find you. With apprenticeships, getting parents and schools on boards is key. It’s about how we change perceptions of apprenticeships with this audience, so we speak at parents’ evenings and make sure schools know about us as a pathway.”
At BT Fleet, parents are considered such an important element in a young person’s career decision that they’re invited to one of the induction sessions so the firm can explain how training will be delivered and what their son or daughter can expect. Rawlings adds that pastoral care can be the key to success when introducing young people to the business: “Many of them want to work but don’t have the commercial basics – even things like answering the phone. With the right onboarding and mentoring, we can overcome this – little things such as making sure they understand their contract or that they need to be on time.”
With pressure on employers to get a return on investment from their levy contributions, fitting apprenticeships into wider workforce planning and complementing other entry routes is crucial. Social housing provider and developer L&Q recently set up an academy spanning everything from traineeships for those who might not yet be ready for a full apprenticeship, to level 7 accountancy qualifications.
“We’re a major levy payer so we have lots of funding to play with,” says John Bryson, head of the academy. “We prioritise new apprenticeships but there is plenty available for reskilling. It’s important for us to link it all up, so it’s a journey for someone from basic skills to potentially a higher-level qualification and career with us.” He meets with managers who are keen to recruit an apprentice to ensure there are realistic opportunities and support available.
Crowley argues that line managers play a significant role in the success of early careers routes. “They identify the skills needs and the roles they need to recruit for, while HR will manage the recruitment and learning side,” she says.
And all potential stakeholders need to get a grip on workforce planning in preparation for any skills shortages that could arise in the coming years as a result of Brexit. “Employers that aren’t actively engaging in workforce planning could find that Brexit has a big impact on them, so now’s the time to prepare,” says Crowley. Ruth South, head of graduate and apprenticeship programmes at Capgemini, sees the future of early careers as something fluid rather than fixed – and it’s perhaps this lesson that’s most important for employers attempting to navigate the ever-shifting landscape. “Down the road, the aim is to remove the idea of separate routes into the business,” she concludes. “We’ll have more upskilling and reskilling – for us, it’s about getting the skills we need, or allowing people a route into education they might not have had before. Our priorities are shifting constantly.”
How Fujitsu is tackling the skills shortage
Fujitsu’s apprenticeship scheme started in 2010, and has gained ground in recent years to recruit roughly 50 to 60 apprentices per year. How this compares with graduate intake depends on current projects and the market environment, explains Mark Jackson, head of internal mobility and junior talent acquisition: “It will continue to grow – paying the apprenticeship levy means there’s more of a requirement to get back the money we’re spending.”
The IT consulting firm has something of an advantage as its early careers schemes are already well established in mainland Europe. “It means we can apply the lessons we’ve learnt from these markets to the UK, where these schemes feel like they’re in their relative infancy,” he says.
Apprentices are spread across several disciplines, from business administration and HR to its core business of IT, most working at level 3 or above. “The number of students coming out of university with technical degrees is diminishing, and we also wanted to make our talent pool more diverse; for example, attracting more women,” Jackson explains. Fujitsu mainly uses external providers for training, running some modules internally.
Finding the right provider was especially important for its degree apprenticeship, and the ultimate choice was Winchester. “We needed to find a university that would offer the structured learning we required, and it takes a lot of time and resource to build up that relationship, because academia can be a different world,” he says. “Furthermore, our business model will change – some business units can’t always manage an arrangement where there are four days in the office and one on campus, so they’re looking at more virtual learning options.”
However the training is delivered, Jackson is happy that there is a strong pipeline of talent coming through: “[Apprentices] bring innovation and new ideas, and we have a bunch of future leaders who can see their career progression ahead.”