The apprentices: hired or fired
Many social landlords are helping young people get into employment by offering them apprenticeships. But should these opportunities guarantee them a job at the end? Not necessarily, as Lydia Stockdale finds out
‘If you give a young person an apprenticeship, you’re setting them up for life,’ states Jill Scott, business manager at Hyndburn Homes Repairs, the repairs and maintenance division of 3,200-home housing association Hyndburn Homes.
The repairs part of the Lancashire-based landlord currently employs seven apprentices and plans to take on another four this September, but the big question it is grappling with - along with any other business that makes the decision to employ trainees for the two to four-year period during which they gain recognised qualifications - is whether they will be able to offer these apprentices jobs when they are fully-fledged tradespeople.
Those that offer apprenticeships are considering whether they are valuable in their own right, after all, as Ms Scott points out, ‘any training is an opportunity’.
Youth unemployment rose yet again during the three months to November - statistics published last week show that 22.3 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds are out of work. Organisations that take on apprentices, removing young people from the quagmire of worklessness, are being applauded. But are they offering false hope if they’re unsure whether they’ll be in a position to hire them at the end of their training?
Inside Housing spoke to three former apprentices who have recently been employed by the organisations that saw them through their training. They gave numerous reasons for wanting to remain within the teams they had become a part of. Meanwhile, social landlords and their contractors would prefer to continue working with the people they’ve invested time and money in. The employers we spoke to are taking on the vast majority of those they have trained. In reality, though, particularly in the current tough economic climate, it’s not always possible for organisations to predict what their staffing needs will be years down the line.
‘We do everything we can to retain apprentices, but when we take somebody on there is no guarantee of a job at the end,’ sums up Ms Scott.
Even the National Apprenticeship Service, the government agency that funds and co-ordinates the delivery of apprenticeships across England - and the organiser of National Apprenticeship Week held from 6 to 10 February - appreciates the difficult financial environment in which businesses in all sectors are currently operating.
‘If anyone goes on to an apprenticeship programme with an employer, we would hope they would be offered an opportunity at the end of it. But we understand the reality, and we appreciate the fact that they took on the apprentice in the first place,’ says a spokesperson.
Meanwhile, the government itself is emphasising the need to get young people onto work placements and apprenticeships. In November deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced £1 billion of new funding available to businesses to help prevent a ‘a lost generation of young jobless people’. Under this scheme, an employer’s role is to give young people an initial leg-up by offering experience, not necessarily to offer long-term employment.
Social landlords and their contractors are, however, already steps ahead. In January 2010, researchers commissioned by the NAS and the National Housing Federation surveyed 111 housing associations and found 71 per cent were delivering apprenticeships directly or through their supply chains. Nearly 60 per cent of the apprenticeships were construction-related.
Using government funding that reaches them via the National Apprenticeship Service and trade training bodies such as the Construction Industry Training Board and Asset Skills, further education colleges provide the approved training courses that lead to apprentices gaining national vocational qualifications or City & Guilds qualifications. However, it is housing organisations and contractors themselves which pay apprentices’ wages, which can be as low as £2.60 per hour - the national minimum wage for apprent-ices - or as high as £16,000 per year.
Hyndburn Homes Repairs’ Ms Scott admits funding apprenticeships in trades including plumbing, heating and electrics, along with back office roles including administration has been ‘an issue’. The organisation has managed to find the money by building apprenticeships into its business plan. For example, it is managing to pay the salary of one of the four apprentices it is hiring this autumn entirely with cash it’s saved through making efficiencies elsewhere.
Hyndburn Homes Repairs is contracted to do repairs and maintenance work for other members of Symphony Housing Group, which collectively own around 40,000 homes across England’s north west. ‘When we take apprentices on, we are looking at the contracts we have coming up - the work streams for the next four to five-year period, so we can see apprenticeships through to an end,’ says Ms Scott.
However, last year the organisation initially placed four former apprentices on short-term, rather than permanent, contracts while it waited to see whether its agreements with the other housing associations would be renewed.
‘We staff up according to the work we have - that’s not just our industry, it’s business in general,’ says Ms Scott. ‘Nobody is in a job for life anymore’.
Gary Lester, managing director for London and the south at Mears Group, is equally pragmatic. ‘I used to firmly believe that if you couldn’t offer a full-time job at the end of an apprenticeship, then you would be letting people down. But I’ve changed my mind recently,’ he says.
‘Now I feel even if you’re not able to offer an individual a career at your organisation at the end of the apprenticeship, you’re still bringing people into employment. You’re at least giving them formal qualifications and the tools to start a career with someone else,’ continues the former electrician.
Mears Group currently employs 260 apprentices in the housing maintenance side of its UK business, and every year it takes on enough people to maintain that number. Around 80 per cent of apprentices remain working for the contractor when they complete their training. However, the organisation plans to start employing up to 350 apprentices in repairs and maintenance, so expects to see the proportion who are hired at the end of the schemes go down.
‘You can’t say, “we’re not running apprenticeships because we can’t offer them all jobs at the end of it”. Of course we try to employ apprentices at the end of their apprenticeships,’ adds Mr Lester. ‘If we can’t, we give them extra help and support in finding their way after leaving Mears, including support in becoming self-employed.’
Will Nixon, director of regeneration at Aspire Housing and chief executive of PM Training, a social enterprise specialising in training and employment opportunities, is inclined to agree with this approach. ‘The young person is at least guaranteed the opportunity of the apprenticeship,’ he says.
Aspire employs around 70 apprentices at any one time, eight of which are in repairs and maintenance-related roles. Next month it is launching a new renewable training centre to provide skills relating to solar photovoltaic panels and air source heat pumps, for example. This year it will offer eight gas apprenticeships through the centre, and aims to build up to a total of 24 per year.
Apprentices currently make up around 12 per cent of the Staffordshire-based landlord’s workforce, and roughly 95 per cent go on to become full-time employees - as for the remainder, they’re also helped into employment.
‘We’re fortunate to have PM, our training arm, through which we’re actively involved with around 600 companies. We have formed agreements with them through which they create employment opportunities through their supply chains,’ Mr Nixon says.
‘Six months before a young person comes to the end of their apprenticeship, if we’ve not lined up a job for them at Aspire - we ring-fence opportunities within the group - then we begin looking at outside companies.’
One way in which housing organisations create employment opportunities within their own communities is to build the creation of apprenticeships into their procurement frameworks. So, for example, when outsourcing repairs and maintenance work, they will insist that a certain number of apprenticeships are created for local people per million pounds value of the contract.
Social landlords and their contractors often work with local colleges to recruit apprentices from areas where unemployment is high. ‘Employing people from within a community helps us to deliver our service better to that community - they know the houses, they know the people,’ comments Mears’ Mr Lester.
Repairs and maintenance contractor Morrison, meanwhile, runs the Morrison Academy, which offers a three-day taster course for unemployed people, some of whom will progress onto an apprenticeship with the firm.
Gerry Malone, partnering manager for Morrison Scotland, says that over the past 10 years the business has taken on 98 apprentices to help it supply repairs and maintenance services to North Lanarkshire Council, and only one did not secure a full-time position.
Recently Mr Malone, himself a former apprentice, took on six ‘adopted-apprenticeships’, continuing the employment and training of six apprentices who have been made redundant by other firms before becoming qualified.
‘Apprentices are our bloodline - we have an ageing workforce and we look at areas where people will fall into retirement stage in three to four years’ time [before recruiting apprentices],’ Mr Malone states.
Those who are involved in apprenticeships agree that apprentices go on to become strong employees - they know the organisation, its policies and procedures as well as its people.
‘Apprentices have the knowledge, plus the comfort of knowing everyone,’ says Mr Malone, summing it up. ‘We’ve spent all of that money, time and effort, so we want to give them a job - but you never know what’s around the corner.’
Phil Herarty, 20, an award-winning gas fitter for Aspire Housing
‘My apprenticeship came to an end last September and now I’m a qualified gas fitter for Aspire Housing. I began doing gardening work for [Aspire’s social enterprise] PM Training when I was 16 years old.
‘Every morning I used to go into the office and badger them to take me on as an apprentice. Not only did this lead to me getting the apprenticeship, but I was also voted the Youth Build UK National Apprentice of the Year at a ceremony at the House of Commons in October 2008. I won it for being so willing and eager, and for how far I’d come.
‘I would have felt qualified to go elsewhere when I finished my apprenticeship, but obviously I wanted to stay here.’
Scott Bennett, 23, an electrician for Morrison Scotland
‘I’d always wanted to be an electrician - it’s a good job and it pays well. I enjoy coming to work.
‘I started out working for Morrison Scotland as a plasterer, but I really wanted to be an electrician. Six months in, there wasn’t enough work in plastering, so I told my bosses that I actually wanted to be an electrician and they offered me an apprenticeship, which I finished in April 2010.
‘I’m now doing a higher national certificate in construction management funded by Morrison. The company invests in my training - it invests in my life - and I want to pay it back. If you have the opportunity, you should pay the company back by proving you were worth it.
‘I think if a company hires you [onto an apprenticeship], they should at least try to get you a job [when it’s finished]. But you have to prove yourself too.
‘There’s no point in spending money on someone, training them up and then not giving them a job.’
Emma Wake, 20, painter and decorator for Aspire Housing
‘I had an apprenticeship at Staffordshire tourist-attraction Trentham Gardens, organised through PM Training. But with the economy being as it is, I was made redundant six months in.
‘That was October 2009. I was a bit gutted, obviously. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I went back to PM Training and was offered an apprenticeship with Aspire, which I’ve now finished.
‘Everyone wants someone with experience, and during the three-year apprenticeship I gained a lot of it. If I hadn’t been offered a job once I’d qualified I could have always used Aspire as a reference, but I’d have been devastated. I’ve been here for quite a while and I feel part of the team.’