How to find (and keep) a great apprentice

Did you know that almost half of all apprentices don’t finish their apprenticeship?

The Pulse spoke to Ron Wright, who’s taught at TAFE NSW and helped run the skills exchange program at Barangaroo – which had more than 800 apprentices roll through.

He said the first thing people typically get wrong is looking for apprentices in the wrong places.

Where are the apprentices, anyway?

Wright said that smaller businesses often take an informal approach to finding an apprentice.

“They go to the pub on a Friday afternoon and say, ‘I’m looking to take an apprentice on – anyone know of a young guy?” he said.

Wright recently conducted a straw poll of construction business owners in Illawarra, and said about 65 percent of them looked for an apprentice through existing contacts or through word of mouth.

“The problem with that is if you ask the kids, ‘How do you think you’re going to get a job?’ most of them will say, ‘I’ll look on Seek or I’ll look in the newspaper,’ said Wright.

This means while those looking for an apprenticeship need to get out there and network, it also means employers should try different strategies to find apprentices such as placing an ad on Seek or in the newspaper.

You can also try the JobActive site to find apprentices.

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The value of working at Macca’s

Once you’ve found a candidate, how do you make sure they’ll be an asset to your business and not a liability?

Having technical skills is great, but it’s not necessarily what makes great apprentice.

Instead it’s about common sense, attitude, and most crucially, life experience.

“There’s a lot more emphasis on being ready for work,” said Wright. “Can they get up in the morning, put their pants on, know what time the train is going to leave, when they need to be on site…are they organised enough to do that?”

It’s why employers are starting to prioritise apprentices who have had some kind of work experience over those just coming out of school.

“[Employers want someone who’s] actually got off their arse and – either through necessity or willingness – actually done something,” said Wright.

The role of mentoring

Wright said that close to 50 percent of apprentices in construction don’t finish their apprenticeship. Despite popular opinion, it has little to do with low apprentice wages.

“By far, the biggest reason [apprentices drop out] is that life gets in the way,” said Wright.

He said things like a dispute with their boss, losing their driver’s license or getting kicked out of home can have a huge impact on the lives of young apprentices.

“At that age, those sorts of things become overwhelming, so they drop out,” said Wright.

When it comes down to issues in their lives, an employer has a role to play as a mentor.

“It’s just about somebody taking an interest in them, being on their case a little bit, and working with them,” said Wright.

If you notice a drop-off in an apprentice’s performance, instead of simply telling them to do better it’s about asking why the apprentice is suffering a drop-off.

“It’s about being able to be truthful. If it’s starting to go a bit pear-shaped, talk about it, but don’t ram it down their throat,” said Wright.

“Just have an honest conversation and ask, ‘What’s going on here? What’s going on? Talk to me.’”

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He also said setting clear goals and delivering useful feedback was a crucial part in engaging the apprentice.

“What I’ve found is that some employers don’t take the time to say to the apprentice, ‘This is what I want you to do and this is why I want you to do it this way. If you get stuck, call me’,” said Wright.

“They’re often left to their own devices.

“Then [the employer] doesn’t give feedback, or if they do give feedback, it’s just telling them that they stuffed up.”

If apprentices aren’t clear on the expectations placed on them, that can be absolutely infuriating for the apprentice.

Wright said many of the issues which make apprentices drop out of their apprenticeships can be solved by better communication.

“At the end of the day, over time, you can teach an apprentice the skills they need,” said Wright. “But if there’s no connection…you’re pushing s**t uphill right from the start.”