I have a question for you whether you are an employer or a provider:

What do you do during the recruitment process to ensure it is a positive experience for the apprentice?

In my experience, having worked in Apprenticeships for over 20 years, providers and employers focus on their own immediate need of filling a vacancy and rarely consider the needs or experience of the potential apprentices. Yet they are missing an opportunity to engage with a future client, consumer and advocate of their brand.

I’m going to tell you a story of an apprentice I know very well, my son.

Jonathan finally secured his first apprenticeship and full-time job as a Trainee Accountant at a local Chartered Accountants in September. I’m obviously very proud of him and the massive effort he has made and the resilience he has shown to achieve this. However, this is not a proud mum story. It is more like a cautionary tale we would tell our children and share with others.

Jonathan was 17 when he started applying for apprenticeships in Finance, Actuary and Accountancy in September 2017 and finally received an offer 10 months later in July 2018 having applied for over 25 apprenticeship roles. He had to juggle revision, exams and working towards his A Levels throughout.

In that time, he experienced a whole range of different assessment methods to determine if he was suitable for the role. He undertook online assessments, situational judgement tests, maths, English and digital literacy exams, personality profiles, psychometric tests, assessment days, interviews – formal/ informal, competency based, video, face to face, telephone, online; compiled presentations, designed apprentice induction days, built rafts, bridges and spaghetti towers.

He turned down several invitations for interview because they clashed with his exam timetable.

He conducted research on all these companies and has gained a great deal of knowledge, experience and confidence in the process. He has learned to chase for decisions, request feedback and had to fight for payment of expenses. He frequently experienced non-returned calls and emails and it was common to not have any feedback in the early stages and even after interviews the feedback was inconsistent across employers.

He travelled up and down the country, both on his own and taking friends or family who would support him. He stayed over-night in unfamiliar cities, planned motorway routes and drove many miles as an inexperienced driver.

When Jonathan was rejected for roles, he experienced a range of responses from no communication telling him he had been unsuccessful, to a standard email or letter, to detailed feedback and supportive comments in a two-way telephone conversation with pointers of how to improve and secure his next role.

It was a challenging journey where he developed many skills including; confidence, negotiating and influencing, building relationships and resilience.

In the end Jonathan was pleased to accept a four-year Accountancy apprenticeship following a friendly one to one chat and tour of the office to see where he was going to work and the opportunity to ask questions and meet the team. He felt comfortable and was welcomed and was treated like an individual. The communication was frequent and supportive and he could see himself working in the company.

He is now thoroughly enjoying his role and passed his first accountancy exam this week.

How effective are these methods in offering the information required to make a decision about the person and their ability to fulfill the role?

I was surprised at the amount of group activities and tasks aimed at extroverts, when the roles Jonathan was applying for were more suited to those who had a preference for introversion. It’s time to look at assessment centres and determine the validity of activities and ensure they are fair and fit for purpose.

The Video interview: How can you get to know someone when you watch back someone answering pre-prepared questions, talking to a screen? I question the value of this type of assessment and ask where’s the human connection?

Competency based interview questions are fine for candidates who have work experience to draw from but a young person who is still at sixth form who only has the opportunity to work part time or has limited work experience they are not going to perform well.

Questions such as “where do you see yourself in 5 years time?” Most teenagers struggle to look ahead 5 months let alone years! They want to be able to secure their first job and then they may be able to tell you once they’ve given it a try. Also what are you wanting to learn from the answer?

Now we are heading towards 2020, wouldn’t it be great to embrace some new ideas for recruitment and selection?

What can we learn from his experience?

When ratios of applicant to role are 500:1 the competition is fierce, and employers can choose the “best” apprentices. It’s clear that the margins are tight because of the volume of recruits, however we need to make sure we are behaving ethically and taking responsibility for offering feedback and encouragement and considering what the 499 apprentices experience as well. I believe there’s an opportunity to enhance the CSR of companies and offer added value to other employers by sharing the recruitment process. There must be a way to simplify and streamline practices and retain the goodwill and motivation of rejected apprentices. Even when the numbers are lower there’s an opportunity to explore how to move potential apprentices into their next apprenticeship role.

Compare the apprentice experience to that of a University applicant who only has one UCAS form to complete and possibly a few interviews, visits and phone calls. There has to be a more effective process for apprentices if they are to consider the opportunities and sustain the motivation and resilience to keep applying. If not, University will remain the only option.

If you tell a candidate you will let them know by the end of the week, Let them know! Common courtesy and decency needs to prevail.

Timing is key, why would you invite an applicant for interview in the middle of their A level exams? Or their mocks, or revision/study time? We need to create an opportunity for applicants to be successful and encourage to attend interviews during quieter times in the academic calendar. A little thought would go a long way.

Be fair, pay travel expenses if there are long distances or overnight stays and pay in good time. Jonathan experienced one large corporate offer only half the expense as the room he stayed in was for two (he took a friend as he was staying a long way from home in a city). He had to argue his case that hotels charged by the room not person! He was also paid in dollars on a foreign visa card – really?!

How to do this well

  1. Make it about the apprentice. Make it an experience.
  2. Make it an opportunity for both parties.
  3. Encourage and support apprentices, make applicants feel great.
  4. Create assessments that are meaningful to the role and add value to the experience
  5. Sign post and offer guidance to applicants who are unsuccessful
  6. Engage other employers and collaborate on apprentice recruitment
  7. Share results of tests and profiles with apprentices so they can use them to develop
  8. Re-imagine a recruitment process that is fit for purpose and reflects your brand
  9. A central database or website for all apprenticeship vacancies
  10. An Apprentice Recruitment and Selection Code of Conduct where employers sign up to being transparent, ethical with a fair, valid and reliable process.

I am determined that Apprenticeships continue to offer opportunities for all not just school and college leavers. There are some quick wins and easy fixes to recruiting apprentices and these could make a real difference. There are other aspects to explore such as creating more apprenticeship vacancies and higher apprenticeships. Look out for future articles from The Apprenticeship Coach.