Why your apprentices need more than on-the-job hard-skills training

When many people think about apprenticeships they only consider the practical skills needed to perform the task at hand. But is this enough for apprentices to really become effective members of your workforce? 

If you are setting up or running an apprenticeship scheme your first priority is naturally to make sure your apprentices are given the practical, sector-specific skills they need to do their jobs. But as an employer, it’s also in your organisation’s interest to cultivate apprentices with the softer life skills – the desirable behaviours they need to become good colleagues and productive workers. What are these – and how can you make this happen? 

The value of soft skills to UK plc

Some good workplace behaviours are relatively straightforward, like arriving on time and dressing appropriately. Others are more complex, and include:

  • Communicating well with others
  • Working well in teams
  • Creative thinking and problem solving
  • Analytical skills and critical thinking
  • Planning
  • Leadership and decision-making
  • Managing people and situations
  • Workload and self-management and multi-tasking
  • Adaptability and flexibility
  • Ethics and integrity.

Apprentices can't be expected to arrive with all of these skills in place – they aren't a core part of the school curriculum. Millennials can sometimes struggle to adapt to certain aspects of working life – they often have different communication styles from their older colleagues, for example, and a different relationship with technology. 

Failure to develop these skills can be costly. According to a report by McDonald’s UK, The Value of Soft Skills to the UK Economy, inadequate soft skills lead to ‘significant business costs, including lost output and poor levels of productivity. Businesses and other employers have a big part to play in addressing these softs skills deficits, particularly when existing employees have soft skills gaps that hinder their performance and potential in the workplace.’ 

How, then, can you help ensure that your organisation integrates soft skills into your apprenticeship programme and avoids the costs associated with the lack of them?

Photo Soft SkillsIntegrating soft skills into your apprenticeship programme

Your strategy here is likely to include a range of tactics, including training and development, mentoring and modelling.

A key way to improve employee soft skills is leading by example. Managers and colleagues of apprentices need to demonstrate desired skills and behaviours in their own working practice, for instance through positive timekeeping, a collaborative working style, and a methodical approach to problem-solving.

Giving each apprentice a mentor – not just a boss or a line manager – can provide support and model desirable behaviours, as can getting apprentices to shadow employees whose behaviour you want them to emulate.

When building mentoring and modelling into your apprentice programme, it’s vital to make sure that there is time for relationships to be nurtured, feedback given and development assessed. And you can get your managers bought in to the idea by showing how speeding up the process of turning apprentices into valuable team members can help make their lives easier too.

Soft Skills 2Training and development

As your apprentices train over a longer period, deploying a mix of classroom and experiential, internal and external training can give them the best start in acquiring and developing soft skills, and can help skills become transferable and flexible.

The experiential approach – learning by doing – can be very powerful in embedding and extending skills development. Role-play can help students deepen their understanding of different points of view, for example. And alongside classroom and workplace-based settings, apprentices can very effectively round out their skills training by leaving their comfort zone and taking to the wilderness.

Outdoor learning puts apprentices in situations that can't be replicated in a classroom – abseiling, canoeing, and mountain climbing for example. They are out of their comfort zone and face new, difficult challenges that require planning, risk assessment and teamwork.

To succeed, apprentices must work together, communicate and collectively come up with solutions. This results in apprentices building peer-supportive networks and helps participants discover and develop resilience and transferrable skills and behaviours like motivation, commitment, ownership and accountability.

Eskdale 29 Small Photo

Soft skills-focussed outdoor learning with The Trust

The Outward Bound Trust runs outdoor learning courses to help young people develop a wide range of soft skills and gain confidence in their own abilities. Courses can be tailored to meet particular challenges that employers consider important for their apprentices.

An example of showing how outdoor learning programmes can be designed to address particular goals is the programme that Bouygues E&S FM runs with The Trust which has been tailored to include: 

  • Team-based problem solving tasks
  • A business simulation project to explore work ethics and personal values
  • A mountainous journey planned and led by apprentices who carry out dynamic risk assessment and responsibility for safe working.

Stagecoach uses outdoor learning to give apprentices (among other things) the skills needed to 'Understand the importance of completing a task on time and to the required standard, and the impact this has on other stakeholders'. Afterwards the apprentices said that they now felt able to use relevant planning models to help them complete tasks. 

Glaxosmithkline has a programme aimed at giving delegates the confidence to ask questions and seek clarification when necessary. Feedback from apprentices indicated that 95% of them now felt confident enough to do this.

Transferring newly-gained skills

Important to experiential learning is that, in addition to learning by doing, it's important that courses also include sessions allowing partipicants the opportunity for reflection and critical analysis to consolidate learning and be able to transfer it to the workplace. 

This has been reflected in the Bouygues experience as their apprentices say the programme has really taught them how to build an effective team and develop their problem-solving skills. The business found that they better understood the concept of work ethics and their alignment with the Bouyges values too – producing the results they were looking for.

How we help businesses with training and development: You can see the potential business benefits of building apprentices' soft skills in a range of case studies here.