When the apprenticeship levy was introduced in 2017, plenty of companies refused to engage with it, instead writing the scheme off as a ‘tax’ and carrying on with their existing L&D provision – or lack thereof. But this was far from Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) approach. “For us, the levy was a real opportunity to improve on the training we already had in place,” says Nicola Dinan, senior training and OD manager.
With UK zookeepers previously undertaking predominantly academic qualifications, including degrees and diplomas, to get their foot in the door of this highly competitive profession, and previous attempts at introducing an apprenticeship scheme falling by the wayside, ZSL – which employs 175 keepers across its two zoos in London and Whipsnade in Bedfordshire – realised the levy was an opportunity to “standardise and professionalise” the zookeeping role, as HR director Fiona Evans puts it. “Nobody had thought how the existing courses met the needs of zoos, so new staff weren’t coming in with on-the-job training,” she says. “A work-based qualification was the perfect solution.”
But aside from the benefits of ensuring all new keepers were undertaking consistent training, the apprenticeship route would also allow the charity to open up these positions to less academic candidates without a degree, and so do its bit to improve social mobility. “There were no opportunities for young people who live locally to become keepers,” says Evans. “They might be less academic, but they’re just as committed to the animals.”
Working closely with ZSL’s animal operations manager, Angela Ryan, Dinan designed the apprenticeship standard alongside 26 other zoos and wildlife parks under the Institute for Apprenticeships’s trailblazer group method, where a group of employers work with professional bodies to develop bespoke, fit-for-purpose qualifications they can all then subsequently introduce.
The first apprentice zookeepers joined ZSL in October last year, tying in with a conference organised and delivered by Dinan to promote the concept to other animal organisations outside the core trailblazer group. “It was quite a challenge to get other zoos on board,” she recalls. “But because we led on the project and were the first to implement it, lots of them have been coming to me for advice.”
Designing the standard from scratch to fit ZSL’s requirements has, Dinan says, allowed for complete flexibility. The organisation was also able to choose its preferred provider to deliver the required 20 per cent off-the-job training, for which its apprentices attend college for one day per month, as well as undertaking two separate week-long blocks during quieter periods. “Meeting the amount of off-the-job training required was a worry for some of the zoos we worked with, but it can be really flexible,” says Dinan. “Sometimes just working on a project counts – it doesn’t have to be offsite.”
Despite the range of animals apprentices have the potential to meet during their training, the zoo also decided to teach one ‘core’ unit, rather than breaking it into different areas and species. “We kept coming back to saying it doesn’t matter which type of animal you work with – the welfare side is the same,” says Dinan.
And introducing apprenticeships to the organisation hasn’t just benefitted the apprentices themselves, Evans points out. Existing staff at both zoos are also becoming involved in the process with the aim of building a ‘learning culture’ across departments. Whereas previous trainees would do all their learning away from the zoo and return fully competent, says Dinan, the zoo is encouraging more senior keepers to get involved in the apprenticeship programme and has created 20 ‘experts’ who receive ‘train the trainer’ sessions and take more of a responsibility for the apprentices’ development. “We’ve invested in the more experienced managers as well as the trainees,” says Dinan. “When you’re a zookeeper the other people around you are so important to your learning. It’s all about continuous development now.”
While the animal team leaders have become more involved with developing their junior staff, they also receive development of their own, in the form of a bespoke ILM management course, delivered in-house by Dinan. She says this allowed her to “gain their trust” before implementing the apprenticeship. “It’s been a massive change to the way we work,” she says. “But building those relationships definitely helped things run more smoothly.”
Evans also notes how much of a confidence boost the changes have given team leaders. “When I first started, everything was just handed to HR to deal with,” she says. “But if you look after people and animals, you’ve got to be able to do both. Now, they’re not frightened of doing that.”
The changes to training, development and career pathways have, Evans says, helped boost already excellent staff engagement scores and retention rates. In particular, the proportion of staff reporting a positive relationship with managers within their department now sits at 81 per cent. And the plans don’t stop there – ZSL aims to advertise more roles as apprenticeships as and when vacancies arise, to add to the 17 it already has. And proposals are being drawn up to create a centre of excellence, which would look after all work-based training programmes, including internships, volunteering, apprenticeships and management courses across conservation, science and learning. “We know there are pockets of good practice across the organisation,” says Dinan. “The next step is to break down the barriers and bring them all together.”