Apprenticeships help boost workforce capabilities

Bethany Bass
Bethany Bass

Each year, more than 26,000 people in Scotland start a modern apprenticeship – working, learning and earning simultaneously. Modern apprenticeships were introduced in the mid-1990s to raise the number of young adults with skills for the world of work.

At the same time they are a valuable way for organisations to expand the capability of their workforce and so drive performance and productivity.

Rabiya Sikander

Rabiya Sikander

Since they were launched, modern apprenticeships (MAs) have evolved to provide training opportunities for people of all ages from 16.

Alongside the MAs, there are now foundation apprenticeships (FAs) for pupils and graduate apprenticeships (GAs).

For employers, FAs are the chance to attract highly motivated and committed young people who are willing to learn and to identify young people who are right for their business, and so ensuring they have people with the skills they need.

GAs are specifically designed by employers and can be tailored to a business, so that the employee is right for the role.

Kara McHugh

Kara McHugh

Skills Development Scotland (SDS), which administers the funding for apprenticeship training on behalf of the Scottish Government, said in January that it was supporting 2,600 FAs and more than 900 GAs this year.

Diane Greenlees, SDS’s head of foundation and graduate apprenticeships, says apprenticeships are essential for the Scottish economy.

“Over the next 10 years we are facing significant and rapid technological change across all our growth sectors, along with global competition,” she said.

“Young people now need to have a different set of skills and qualifications to help them succeed in the workplace.

“All our apprenticeships are designed to make sure these young people have skills, experience and the confidence and competence to succeed in the world of work much quicker.”

The new apprenticeships are funded by the Scottish Government and the European Social Fund.

GAs are proving popular and Edinburgh Napier University, for example, is already expanding its portfolio from digital skills to civil engineering, construction and the 
built environment and business management.

In Scotland, about 12,000 organisations – from family firms to multinationals across every type of business – already employ MAs.

“From Shetland to the Borders, employers across Scotland are seeing the business benefits of taking on apprentices,” says SDS chief executive Damien Yeates.

“With support from SDS and new types of apprenticeships available this year, there’s never been a better time to get involved in work-based learning.”

Depending on eligibility, employers in Scotland can access funding for all types of apprenticeships and there is no limit on the number of apprentices a business can employ, if they have the capacity.

Employers with annual salary bills of more than £3 million who now pay the UK Government’s apprenticeship levy can also benefit from publicly-funded programmes.

These include contributions towards training costs for MAs and GAs; recruitment incentives for people who require additional support and support for up-skilling existing employees from the Flexible Workforce Development Fund through the college sector.

This month, Scottish Apprenticeship Week showcased how apprenticeships work for businesses, individuals and the economy.

The theme was “apprenticeships are the business” and it was aimed at encouraging more employers to take on apprentices. Organised by SDS, the week saw apprentices and employers talk about their apprenticeship journeys, highlighting the advantages for both sides of the equation.

Here we meet some of the people who helped get the message out during the week.

Bethany Bass

She may be the only woman in the workshop, but welder fabricator apprentice Bethany Bass isn’t letting that get in the way of her career ambitions.

Bass, 26, works for AJ Engineering in Forres, Moray, which specialises in steel fabrication, erection and cladding.

AJ Engineering is owned by Alan James, who himself started out as an apprentice engineer with another firm in 1971 and set up the company in 1999.

Over the years, he has hired more than 30 apprentices, who he says are the “lifeblood” of the firm – and he is full of praise for Bass, who is the first female apprentice.

“We were delighted when we were able to take Bethany on,” he says.

”She enjoys it – and doesn’t mind being in a male-dominated environment. She brings her own way of doing things.

“We want to push her on – like the other apprentices. There are no ceilings here. If more females apply like Bethany, more power to us.

“It’s so important for companies to have apprentices. There’s nothing like having your own home-grown employees.”

Bass has been with the firm for two years, starting out as a machinist and fitter’s mate, helping out with general tasks in the workshop.

In August, she started an MA and is currently working towards a Level 5 engineering qualification at Moray College UHI, which she attends two days a week.

Bass, from Kinloss, says her gender has never been an issue. “A lot of people do ask me about the gender imbalance, but being the only girl in the workshop, I really don’t see any difference,” she says.

“There’s such a stigma behind it that needs to be dropped – it’s not the way people think it is.

“The people I work with are lovely, and they’re so helpful. I’m just another member of the team.”

One of the things she likes most about the role is the variety – and the opportunity to work on impressive projects.

She says: “My favourite part of the job is building something, making something, and seeing it all put together and in use.

“Whether that’s a piece of a building or a handrail – I also made some platforms for underneath the Forth Road Bridge.”

Bass’s job combines a mix of marking and cutting steel, working on welding jobs and going out to sites to put projects together, all with plenty of support from her colleagues and mentor.

She says that getting paid while she learns sets her apprenticeships apart from other jobs or study.

“It totally opens up your life,” she says. “There are so many opportunities. Once you’ve finished work, you can go home and book a holiday, you can start saving for a mortgage.”

For Bass, who hopes to keep working in a hands-on role up to supervisor level, the MA has set her up in a career for life.

She says: “My apprenticeship has totally broadened my horizons and opened my eyes up to what I can actually do and achieve within engineering.”

Rebecca Watt

Rebecca Watt had her apprenticeship lightbulb moment at school and now she is inspiring others to follow in her footsteps.

Watt, 27, is an apprentice development assessor at BT, based between Ayr and Glasgow, and is involved in training, developing and nurturing BT’s future digital workforce.

It all started at Park Mains High School in Erskine, Renfrewshire. “It was during my final year at school that I came across an MA opportunity with BT. I knew straight away that an apprenticeship would be the ideal way for me to kick off a career in digital.

“This MA gave me exactly what I was looking for – the chance to cut my teeth in the world of work as soon as I was out of the school gates.

“BT had been on my radar for some time. My dad is an engineer for the company and I knew how good they were to work for. I applied and, to my delight, I got accepted.”

Watt’s apprenticeship was packed with on-the-job training.

“A ‘buddy up’ programme gave me the chance to shadow experienced team members to learn more about the different jobs’ roles and departments in BT, and to see at first hand how they fitted into the company as a whole,” she explains.

“I was given the opportunity to learn important skills like teamwork and collaboration, vital for today’s workplace. There was also off-the-job training. “It made the adjustment from the classroom to the workplace much easier.

“It had a strong academic focus and involved classroom learning or online courses that were interesting and imperative in helping us increase our knowledge and understanding.”

Completing her MA in March 2016, Watt knew straight away that an apprentice development assessor was the role she was destined for.

“I love my job because I get to tap into my own experience as an MA to offer support, guidance and advice to tech apprentices and trainees working towards SVQ qualifications.

“Being able to give something back has been incredibly rewarding, especially when I can see apprentices grow and develop throughout their time at BT.”

Rabiya Sikander

Glasgow school pupil Rabiya Sikander has gone from repairing bikes and dismantling games consoles at home to learning how to hacksaw, measure out materials and use industry-standard machinery, thanks to a mechanical engineering FA.

Sikander, 16, said: “I love making things and experimenting. That’s why engineering and the FA appealed to me, the practical side of it – it’s really interesting.”

Notre Dame High School pupil Sikander attends City of Glasgow College two afternoons a week, and she will go out on placement next year.

“Coming from an all-girls school, I was nervous to start with,” she admits.

“I’ve never been in a teaching environment where I was working with boys. When I did come, though, I realised it’s not so bad.

“With the FA, I’ve learned lots of new skills that I didn’t think I was capable of learning and doing things that I never thought I’d do.”

Sikander, who lives in Bridgeton, originally had ambitions of a career in childcare but a search on the Skills Development Scotland website brought the FA to her attention – and she reckoned that the hands-on nature of the engineering qualification would be right up her street.

She is now keen to move on to study an HNC in mechanical engineering when she finishes school, and then to apply for an MA in petroleum engineering.

She says: “The FA has made me realise that, by getting a head-start in mechanical engineering at school, I can do lots of different things. It opens a gate to a wide variety of options.”

John Sweeney, curriculum head of engineering and energy at City of Glasgow College, says: “The foundation apprentices develop so quickly.

“They’re in an adult environment – they learn research skills, they learn communication skills, they learn teamwork skills.

“And that’s what employers want – they want soft skills. The FA is very beneficial.”

Liam Harper

Two weeks after leaving school, Liam Harper, 19, joined Aberdeen Standard Investments through its Investment 2020 Apprenticeship programme.

After successfully completing his MA, the former Inverurie Academy pupil was given the opportunity to undertake a GA.

It is a great opportunity for the self-confessed computer fanatic who believes the apprenticeship route will give him the edge in Scotland’s 
ever-growing tech industry.

Harper, who is keen to pursue a career in data science, says: “By doing the GA, I’ll get four years of learning, plus four years of work experience alongside it.

“It’s also enabling me to save up for things – like a house.”

He is studying towards a BSc (Hons) in software development for business through Robert Gordon University by distance learning.

“I’m fortunate in that my employer is aware that I’ll need time to do the uni stuff,” he says.

“It’s a case of dedicating some time to it while I’m at work. The people in my team have also studied software development, which definitely helps.”

In his job as a business intelligence analyst, Harper works on data analysis and programming, using and learning new programming languages such as C#.

Technical lead at Aberdeen Standard Investments Geoff Webb says that Harper, who is the company’s first GA, is having a positive impact on the team.

“Liam is as good as anyone else on the team,” Webb says. “We can tell, month to month, he’s improving all the time.

“That’s testament to what he did as an MA, and what he’s learning now as a GA – he’s coming on leaps and bounds.

“He has skills which no one else in the team has, and we’re learning from him as much as he’s learning from us.”

Kara McHugh

Kara McHugh is engineering a future for herself with a GA.

McHugh, 29, has already completed an MA with civil engineering firm Atkins, where she started out in a computer-aided design (CAD) role.

“I didn’t have an engineering background, so when they were hiring for an apprentice a few months after I joined, they asked if I’d be interested in the opportunity,” she says.

“As well as the CAD qualifications, I’d get civil engineering qualifications, giving me the best of both.”

McHugh, who lives in Coatbridge, completed her civil engineering MA by studying at Glasgow Kelvin College one day a week alongside her full-time role.

She was then given the chance to further her learning through a GA.

Through her studies, McHugh is covering a lot of the ground required for industry-accredited qualifications, including Engineering Technician and Incorporated Engineer status. She should achieve this within a few years of entering the profession – far faster than if she had gone down the university route.

“The GA really helps towards the professional qualifications – it pretty much ticks off all the things you need for EngTech without realising you’ve done it.”

McHugh is taking every opportunity she can at Atkins – she recently won a coveted Institution of Civil Engineers QUEST Award.

She is also volunteering as an apprentice ambassador in the firm, visiting schools to encourage children to consider a career in STEM.

Ian Mair, principal engineer in the transportation division of Atkins and McHugh’s mentor, says: “Apprentices like Kara are central to the business.

“They bring different insight, they have that understanding of technology and communication – the new perspective is refreshing.”

McHugh thinks the combination of work and learning has been hugely beneficial for her, and not just professionally.

“With a GA you’ve got all the added benefits of working for a big employer, you’re getting qualified and you get a 
full-time wage too.

“My confidence has grown, and I’ve been able to buy a house with my partner and save up, which is great,” she adds.

Toni Durning

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has recruited 26 young people through the Pathways apprenticeship scheme since 2012.

One of them is Cumbernauld teenager Toni Durning, who is studying towards an HNC in IT and administration at Glasgow Kelvin College while working full-time at SQA.

She demonstrates that apprenticeships are an option for everyone, whatever their background.

Durning, 17, was taken into care, along with her three brothers, at the age of five.

She had a stable upbringing, thanks to loving foster parents, but she still worried that future employers would judge her on her start in life.

With the help of charity Who Cares? Scotland, she was pointed towards the MA with SQA and, much to her delight, she got the job.

She explains: “Due to my background, I didn’t think I’d be very successful. Before, I was very shy, I wouldn’t speak to anyone. For me to be here – I never would have thought it would be possible.”

She says: “I’ve become a lot more mature. I can manage my money by myself, pay for things by myself.

“The apprenticeship has made me feel confident because of all the things I have to do on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s making me feel like my background won’t affect any jobs that I want to go for.”

SQA organisational development manager Raymond Holloway adds: “It has been heartening to see Toni gain confidence and new skills during her time at SQA.

“She has fully embraced the opportunities which the apprenticeship offers and it’s great that she is finding the experience such a positive one.”

Having an understanding and supportive employer has played a key part in Durning’s success.

Peter McGregor, employment manager at Who Cares? Scotland, says: “The approach that SQA takes means talented and capable young people are being supported in a way that pushes and develops them, but with an understanding of what life is like outside of 9am and 5pm.”

Dr Janet Brown, SQA chief executive, says: “We continue to champion the outstanding efforts of the thousands of young people across the country using them to get ahead in their careers.”

Eilidh Riach

Dundee & Angus College has been offering FAs in areas including civil engineering, childcare and accounting for the last two years.

Arbroath High pupil Eilidh Riach, 16, opted for one in software development as one of her subject choices in S5.

At the end of her two-year FA, Riach will earn a qualification similar to a Higher, which she can use to get into work, an MA, college or university.

Two days a week Riach goes to the college where she is taught alongside pupils from different schools.

Riach says: “I’ve always been interested in software development, so the FA seemed like a great opportunity – it also gave me the chance to experience new places and things.”

With the opportunity to develop new skills such as web development, Riach believes the apprenticeship is a great way for young people, particularly girls, to find out more about IT.

She says: “Sometimes it feels like girls are discouraged from doing computing and I don’t think that’s right. I’d like to see that change.”

Riach adds that the FA has taught her so much more than technical skills. “It has made me more confident. Coming to a new place to try new things, it pushes you outside of your comfort zone.”

According to Dundee & Angus College workforce development leader Laura Louch, pupils from across the region are thriving.

“They enjoy coming to college. It makes them feel grown-up and on the way to progressing from school. They seem really excited by the employer engagement,” she says.

Employers also appreciate the opportunity to work with the students. “They’re really on board,” says Louch.

“One employer that we’re working with is looking for future employees through this. He really values getting them in younger and giving them that entry into his industry.”

Work, earn, learn

Modern Apprenticeships

These are jobs where individuals can work, learn and earn to gain industry-recognised qualifications.

There are more than 80 different types – or frameworks – that have been developed in response to employer needs.

They cover hundreds of job types and not just “traditional trades”.

There are also higher level MAs at technical and professional level.

An MA can be for new recruits or existing employees.

Foundation Apprenticeships

These help young people gain valuable, real-world work experience and access work-based learning while they are still at school.

They are for pupils in S5.

An FA usually takes two years to complete and during this time students spend part of the week out of school, getting hands-on experience at college.

They also work on real projects with an employer.

They are studying towards an industry-recognised qualification (set at SCQF level 6) which is the same level of learning as a Higher – alongside their other subjects.

FAs could be a stepping stone to a job or university – or a fast-track into an MA.

Graduate Apprenticeships

These provide work-based learning opportunities up to master’s degree level.

They have been created in partnership with industry and the further and higher education sector.

For individuals, it is an opportunity to get qualified – work towards DipHE, honours and master’s professional qualifications, while in full-time paid employment.

They are an opportunity to gain skills – develop transferable, recognised skills that are considered relevant by industry, employers and universities.

This article appears in the Spring 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. Further information about Vision Scotland here.