These employers of apprentices in the advanced therapy industry took part in a Q&A session during National Apprenticeship Week 2019. Each employs a Level 3 or Level 5 apprentice and is part of the Advanced Therapies Apprenticeship Community. For more highlights of the event watch this video.

8 May 2019

From left to right: Clive Shepherd, Apprentice Manager, University of Oxford, Richard Shortland, Senior Organisation Development Manager, NHSBT, Linda Randal, Executive Director, Biologics Development, Allergen, Sheena Pumford, HR Director, Cobra Biologics

Where do apprenticeships sit within your wider organisational development plans? 

SHEENA: Within our organisation apprenticeships fit in at the technician level.  They’re being mentored by supervisory people who are helping them develop the skills required.  They are doing a small amount of lab work now but a lot of it is learning, learning on the job.

LINDA: Our apprenticeships form an integral part of our organisation and one of the key things that we aim to do is to make the apprentices feel part of the organisation and part of the team. They’re working alongside the scientists and the senior scientists to do the practical work but also get the opportunity to study and have an internal mentor that can help them develop those educational elements; but the key part for them is really feeling a part of the organisation.

Are your organisations looking at transferring Levy funds to organisations in your supply chain?

RICHARD: It’s something we haven’t done at all yet and so it’s very early days, we started off looking at the levy as a target. But it’s become clear that we’re never going to use all of it.  So we’re looking at other things we could do to make use of the available levy, and so transferring some of it to our supply chain is something we’re looking at.

What selection criteria do you use when you’re looking to employ apprentices? 

SHEENA: What we look for is a genuine interest and an excitement about science.  Also, the ability to work as part of a team, which is why we have had workshops rather than just face to face interviews so that we can see how people work together. We have also got some of our scientists, senior scientists involved with that as well.

LINDA: It’s that passion for science, not necessarily any technical background, but the interpersonal skills. It’s the ability to learn, communicate and work as a team that are some of the critical elements that we look for. Because we’re working in a regulated environment there is also an element of being able to follow instructions, so some verbal reasoning or numerical reasoning help us understand that they’re going to be a good fit for the environment that we’re working within.

RICHARD: Key thing is not necessarily about qualifications, yes there’s the minimum entry, but I think it is more about the personal qualities of the individual.  Knowledge you can transfer, but it’s harder to address things around attitude or willingness and enthusiasm for the area. We were supported in the recruitment processed by the ATAC community and that was key as well. If you’ve not done this kind of thing before, there’s support there to help you run a workshop or a different recruitment process that might be different to what you have done before, or if it’s your first apprenticeship the support is there to help you get through that.

What are the do’s and don’ts for organisations that are looking to employ apprentices?

SHEENA: You need a strong supervisory support network and choose your Line Managers well. Don’t underestimate the unexpected. Previously we had one difficult experience because we didn’t have the support, we hadn’t gone through a process of really understanding what the apprenticeship was about. We picked a provider off the internet that was close by that I’d heard of and then we went through a recruitment process and that person lasted about four weeks. Take your time when you’re recruiting to make sure you get the type of person that is going to fit into your organisation.

LINDA: One to watch out for is some of the legal restrictions on working hours for different age groups. If we had thought about that upfront we would have been better placed for taking on apprentices as we do ad hoc shift work, different hours and of course that comes with some complications.

RICHARD: Be prepared. I feel the responsibility that when we take on an apprentice, that it is someone’s first foray into the work place, and we have a responsibility as employers to do right by them and do it properly. But on the flip side, the help is out there to help you in navigating through what can be daunting if you’ve never done it before, but the support is there.

CLIVE: The training provider relationship is fundamental.  Pick a training provider that someone else within your group is already using, get two or three recommendations and spend your time and invest in that. A good training provider has got as much bought into your member of staff as you have, they’ve no interest in you recruiting someone they can’t train just as you’ve no interest in recruiting someone who won’t fit into your team and it really is as fundamental as that.

How can we maintain a level of training through people’s careers at managerial and senior level?

CLIVE: We’ve got staff on everything from level 2 Team leaders who are looking after a small team of three to level 5 Operations or Departmental Manager qualifications and the level 6 Degree level Chartered Manager Degree or the EMBA programmes that are just coming in. From an equality point of view apprenticeship-based training is fantastic for existing staff. You need to do all your apprenticeship training in work time, and the Government suggests that will be 20% of your contracted hours, you will spend doing your training.  Now that’s great if you’ve got other responsibilities outside work. We found that it is a fantastic way of developing our staff and particularly our managers.

RICHARD: We’ve found more and more apprentices start at level six and seven particularly for existing members of staff.  They find the option of apprenticeship relevant in terms of the industry exposure to their day job and it slots in well as opposed to stepping outside into a more traditional educational route. It integrates really well and it’s a great thing for us to offer our staff in terms of their continuing professional development.  I think some of the organisation is taking a bit of time to get used to that, they’re much more comfortable with the traditional educational hierarchy of the MSC and PhD but they’re starting to think differently, out of necessity almost, that we need to have those options available.

Why is it so hard to get talent?  What do you think the underlining cause is?

CLIVE: It would be easy to say that schools aren’t teaching kids what they need to know, and they don’t give us what we need, and maybe some of that is true.  Oxfordshire is a great place to look for a job, there’s plenty of employers and not that many people, we’re just not getting the number of applicants that we used to get.  So as soon as you start asking for experience, you’ve knocked out a load of people that can’t apply.  That’s why apprenticeships are great for us because we can recruit people that don’t know how to do the job.  Why are those experienced people not there?  I’m not sure, I expect that they get snapped up by other companies and there’s a limit.

LINDA: I think for us in Liverpool the area is more traditionally manufacturing, so in a development organisation we can struggle to attract people.  In terms of the apprenticeships I think it’s about trying to provide opportunities for a whole range of people to come in at different entry levels and mature their career that way.  Whether it’s an apprenticeship, whether it’s a proportion of people coming straight from university, it’s trying to build that whole programme so that people through different routes can learn and excel in their career and take their career where they want to go.

SHEENA: It’s always been quite difficult to attract different skill sets.  I think for the last couple of years the job market has been buoyant and there just aren’t the skills out there from university to bring in. I think Graduates you find they’ve got the education but actually the laboratory skills aren’t necessarily any better than if you bring somebody in at 18 who hasn’t been to university; and so this way we are taking them right at the beginning and we’re going to develop those skills.

What do you look for in a training provider?

CLIVE: What I want from my training provider is to do what they say they’re going to do just like you want from any other business.  I want their assessors to turn up when they’re supposed to turn up, I want them to provide the lessons they’re supposed to provide, I want them to manage my recruitment for me.  I just want a professional service.

LINDA: I think its important to recognise the group who’ve put this programme together because we haven’t really had to get too involved in that because that team have really taken the responsibility to drive and create that programme that then we can benefit from.

SHEENA: From the training provider what we need is the support with the recruitment, but I think we also need the guidance as we move forward because a lot of it is very new to us, particularly about the levy and making sure that we’d probably enrolled, that we haven’t got any problems with the ongoing process once you’ve selected your apprentice.

What does the ATAC group look for in training providers?

KATE: First we’ll have a real wide read of training providers that can deliver that apprenticeship, so we’ll start with a really wide net. One of the big drivers for selection of the providers is that they can deliver to a national cohort. So we need national providers. We then look at those and who’s worked with the those them, we look at their reputation and we will have really detailed conversations with them to ensure that not only the training is up to scratch but that all of that support around the apprenticeship programme is in the right place; and then that they are prepared to be flexible and work with industry to develop the specific modules and the specific content that we want within a programme.

What proportion of your apprentices have stayed with the organisation and within the industry?

CLIVE: 93% of our apprentices stay in the job to which they’ve been trained to do, the other 7% tend to stay in the industry. Clinical trials is a really good example, we used to get a lot of people take entry level jobs in our clinical trials unit with fantastic degrees, they’d network and after six months they’ve moved on.  We started putting apprentices into those roles and training them and they’re getting retention rates of three/four years now.

RICHARD: We get a high percentage of retention. It’s deliberate as we want to keep hold of people as we’ve invested time in them.  The nature of our organisation is that we do look internally a lot for growth and progression development just because we’re a little bit different as an entity.  So apprenticeships are really a long term job interview for that person and it works for them as well in terms of are they comfortable with the organisation, are they happy to commit to us for their future.

LINDA: Over the last five years several apprentices have stayed to extend their qualifications.  Some have stayed to join the company permanently, in some cases they haven’t but we’ve supported them finding another apprenticeship or another job within the industry. We don’t always have the job at the end of it, we can’t promise it but in some cases it works out; but then our job is to help them and support them in finding their next opportunity.