Peter Westgarth: Apprenticeship schemes should consider more than just technical skills

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Apprentices WeekIt’s becoming more and more apparent that businesses in the UK are finding it difficult to recruit employees equipped with the right skills required for the job in hand. Despite the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, which came in to force back in April, enforcing the need for UK employers to fund new apprenticeships, a lack of so-called ‘soft skills’ in candidates is often the missing ingredient for employers. More often than not, apprenticeship schemes offer the development of on-the-job ‘technical skills’ but often neglect the need for personal development of their apprentices.

Transferable skills such as communication, team-work, resilience and leadership can often be key to success. As chief executive of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award I have been witness to thousands of young people transforming their lives through developing personal attributes required to enter and develop in the world of work.

In fact, results from a recent nationwide survey commissioned by the DofE, tapping into the attitudes of UK employers when it comes to employing young people, proved that evidence of soft skills affects hiring decisions with a staggering 95% of decision-makers regarding soft skills as equally or more important than academic achievements alone, and 98% urging young people to invest more time in enhancing these skills.

Perhaps equally as telling, was discovering 9 in 10 employers say young people with strong soft skills progress faster in the workplace. It acts as proof that whilst grades are indeed important, it’s the skills you adopt along the way that help you to advance.

Apprenticeships done differently

Recognising the benefits of the DofE for personal and career development has seen several businesses in the UK integrating the DofE into their apprenticeship programmes. ‘DofE Business’ gives apprentices the opportunity to develop their confidence, their ability to work as a team, and lead their peers. What’s more it gives employers the chance to support and reward young people at the beginning of their careers. At the core of DofE Business partnerships lies a vital motivating factor, that personal development, running alongside technical training, benefits both the employers and the apprentices.

British Gas was the first UK company to introduce the DofE into its apprenticeship engineering training programme back in 2006. British Gas believes that the DofE helps young employees develop essential communication and people skills needed to provide excellent customer service as well as build their confidence and improve their mental and physical wellbeing.

Since 2006, over 2,300 British Gas apprentices have embarked on their Gold Award. After running the programme for over a decade, it is clear that there are tangible benefits for the business. Internal research found that British Gas employees who have achieved their Gold Award had fewer complaints and more customer referrals. Matthew Bateman, Managing Director of UK Field Operations at British Gas believes the time apprentices invest in volunteering as part of a DofE programme is crucial: ‘Time spent in the community helps our new recruits relate to customers and their lives – something vitally important in a customer – focused business like ours’.

Consulting and infrastructure support services company Amey has run a Gold Award programme alongside their apprenticeship scheme since 2010. Working to break the cycle of deprivation and employ people from all backgrounds, including candidates with less experience or formal training, Amey launched a strategic partnership with the DofE specifically to support disadvantaged young people in the community.

Andy Miller, CEO of Amey is seeing the real impact the DofE has on their apprentices: ‘Our young people are encouraged to push themselves outside of their comfort zone when doing their DofE and the skills that they develop can be life-changing’.

DofE Business was recognised as an award-winning initiative at The Charity Awards 2012 for excellence in education, training and development of young people and 15 businesses so far have integrated the DofE into their apprenticeship programmes. It is encouraging to see that some of the UK’s biggest companies are acknowledging the need for wider personal development of apprentices and are willing to invest in young people developing their soft skills to become more rounded individuals. In our constantly changing world, giving young people a chance to gain transferable skills will become increasingly important and programmes such as DofE Business are needed now more than ever.

Achieving a DofE Award is testament to a young person’s commitment, and in return it’s a personal investment. A young person is required to learn a new skill, dedicate their spare time to volunteer in their communities, take up a physical activity, as well as go on an expedition and participate in a residential; and this is no mean feat. In the process, they’re developing themselves and enhancing their job prospects.

These efforts don’t go unnoticed: businesses recognise the visible impact of the DofE and identifying talent. In fact, British Entrepreneur and ex-Dragon’s Den investor, Sarah Willingham is amongst the 82% of employers we surveyed, who think the term “soft skills” does not adequately reflect their importance. ‘Real life skills’ or ‘Core skills’ would give the term more gravitas and better highlight the key message: when it comes to employability, the value of those skills cannot be underestimated.

It came as no surprise to UK Businesswoman and Dragon’s Den investor, Deborah Meaden, that a third of UK employers are urging young people to value soft skills over academic achievements. Deborah adds, “I would actively encourage young people to get involved in extracurricular activities and volunteering. Achieving a DofE Award is a brilliant way to gain recognition for all the effort put in and shows potential employers a candidate has great communication, confidence and teamwork skills, which are indispensable in the workplace.”

With business leaders more likely to employ a candidate who can demonstrate achievements beyond their curriculum studies, such as a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, integrating such programmes into apprenticeship schemes is important as we look to develop and nurture a new generation.

 

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About Peter Westgarth

Peter was appointed Chief Executive of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in 2005 and has led the development of eDofE, the on-line system for recording and managing DofE activity, professionalised organisational processes and, most importantly, over the past decade has increased Award completion by 93% whilst costs have increased by just 35%.

Prior to that, Peter was UK Chief Executive of Young Enterprise. He held the post from 1990 to 2005 and was President of YE Europe for a period of 6 years, growing the organisation from 6 founding member countries to 19 member nations.

In 2003 he was awarded the Bata JA Life-time Achievement Award for his services to enterprise education. Peter was also awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion in June 2006

Peter was UK Director of the “Livewire” youth business programme from 1985-1990. He is a qualified teacher, has worked in newspaper advertising and has several years’ experience as a professional charity fund-raiser.

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