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Why Foster + Partners wanted its apprenticeships to be the best

24 May 2018 By Robert Jeffery

When the world’s leading architectural practice decided to use its levy funds to tackle social mobility, it meant breaking new ground 

For connoisseurs of modernist architecture, the headquarters of Foster + Partners by the banks of the Thames is like wandering into Alice’s Wonderland. By turns secretive and innovative, its spectacularly airy floors were the original drawing board for iconoclastic buildings that permanently altered the architectural paradigm, from the Reichstag in Berlin and Hong Kong International Airport to Apple’s remarkable Californian headquarters and the ongoing redevelopment of Battersea Power Station.

It’s also great fun. The firm’s legendary attention to detail, exemplified by founder Lord Foster, sees it produce pristine scale replicas for every piece of work, turning the design rooms that house most of its 1,000 or so UK-based employees into a giant living studio. Elsewhere are 3D printers, a vast library of materials laid out on racks to be handled and evaluated, and even a recording studio, part of the practice’s mission to offer a full end-to-end service for its clients by keeping as much of its activity in-house as possible. 

Such adherence to quality – and complexity – is both a blessing and a curse for Foster + Partners’ HR team. And when it began addressing the opportunities presented by the apprenticeship levy, it faced an additional challenge: how to do something that went further than almost any other scheme that had been designed to date.

“The cheapest way to deal with the levy is to write it off as a tax,” says head of HR Charlotte Sword. “But that is not the philosophy of this organisation. The board saw it as an opportunity for diversity, inclusion and social mobility.”

The firm, she says, had always been “deliberately diverse” but had to recognise that it was part of a “traditionally middle and upper-middle class profession”. Only 9 per cent of those who start a hugely expensive, seven-year course become fully qualified as architects and women are the most likely to drop out. 

An architectural apprenticeship could change the nature of the profession from the ground up by offering a potentially debt-free education and a route into work. But maintaining the academic rigour required across a condensed time scale seemed almost impossible in a highly regulated industry. 

So Foster + Partners acted as a catalyst for a group of 20 firms, working with two industry organisations – the Architects Registration Board and the Royal Institute of British Architects – and the Institute for Apprenticeships to design new standards over 18 months. It also brought an architect, Peter Garstecki, into the HR team to ensure the content was relevant and spoke the language of the profession.

The result is two apprenticeship routes – one at Level 6 and one at Level 7 – lasting four years each and leading to full registered status as an architect. Taken together, they comprise bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the subject. The mandatory year-long period of hands-on experience is instead sandwiched throughout the apprenticeship.

“We agreed early on that this needs to be a viable alternative [to a full-time university route] but there should be no dumbing down of the qualifications,” says Sword. 

“We also don’t want it to be seen as a second-class route. We want it to be an additional one that works both for architectural practices and individuals.” 

It builds on what Laggi Diamandi, the firm’s learning and development manager, describes as an established learning culture that brings him challenges diametrically opposite to those faced by his peers. “It’s a challenge to meet demand for the amount of learning our employees want,” he says. “Architects have to accrue 35 hours of learning per year. But also, they just want to be the best and they will push themselves to do it. To achieve that, you need resources, and they ask for them every day.”

L&D’s job, says Diamandi, is to “facilitate and look beyond the obvious”. That might mean asking Industrial Light and Magic (special effects experts on Star Wars) to explain how they used software to render the Jedi city of Jedah in Rogue One. But equally, he and L&D adviser Caitlin Grieves have learned to code the firm’s learning management system to ensure it can be updated instantly to enable content to be curated effectively.

The apprenticeships will open the learning culture up further by allowing all staff to participate in lectures onsite (it already operates a Professional Practice Academy for established employees). But that doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing. There is, Sword admits, “a long-hours culture”, typical of professional services, which the firm is determined to tackle through mindfulness and wellbeing programmes, financial education for staff and management development. 

The recruitment model is also evolving to emphasise potential rather than qualifications, aiding the drive for social mobility. And HR is behind an effort to break down barriers when teams are formed by “helping people get to know each other better” before they plunge into highly involved work.

The cloud on the horizon, however, is Brexit. Foster + Partners’ London-based staff speak more than 70 languages and are drawn from all over the globe. With 80 per cent of its work carried out overseas, mobility is simply non-negotiable. “We have 28,000 applications each year, of which we might only take the top 0.5 per cent,” says Sword. “For a creative design business like ours, you need some turnover of talent so you don’t become stale. Apprenticeships will change the look and feel of the practice, but we know they’re not going to solve all our problems.

“We want to stay in London. This is our home, and we believe a lot of the best architecture on the planet is derived from here, done in collaboration with the rest of the world. We need the best talent from around the globe. We’ll work with whatever system is in place. But it’s going to cost us.” The HR strategising required will be every bit as innovative as anything drafted by the firm’s architects. But if any company can rise to the challenge, this one can.

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