Modern apprenticeships address emerging skills gaps

Dr Tracey Leghorn
by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Business Services Officer | SUEZ recycling and recovery UK
Blog by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Human Resources Officer for SUEZ recycling and recovery UK

In previous times, low economic growth and high inflation were accompanied by severe unemployment. Today the problems vexing the business world and government are worker and skills shortages, low productivity, and high numbers of ‘economically inactive’ people not seeking work.

Brexit has exposed not just worker shortages in specific areas of the economy, but also the imbalance between the numbers of people with poorer basic skills and those with higher-level skills. Like many other industries, waste management is no stranger to recruitment challenges and the need to develop the expertise required now and for the future as markets are transformed by technology, regulation and competition.

Our industry is in the front line of the wider environmental and economic transition, and we face particular challenges. As the CIWM has highlighted, the waste and resources sector has an ageing workforce, with almost 12% over 60 years old. Additionally, the sector struggles to attract young talent with only around 5% in the 16-24 age group. The sector has so far recruited low levels of staff from ethnic minorities (less than 7% versus the UK average of over 11%) and fewer women (under 16% compared to the UK’s 47% average).

Meanwhile, the world of work is changing rapidly. Of today’s schoolchildren, it’s predicted that 60% will end up working in jobs that don’t exist right now. They, and their employers, will have to navigate a world of work where the average person will hold 17 jobs across five different careers. Learning, unlearning and relearning will be the norm. Recruitment, training and retraining will be imperative to build a circular economy that manages resources responsibly and to support the transition to a decarbonised future.

The UK already has a deficit of some 70,000 workers with green skills. However, there is also a huge opportunity. Research for the Green Alliance suggests the circular economy could create more than 450,000 new UK jobs by 2035.

What does the waste sector need to do to play its part in this skills revolution? We are making headway, but our industry and UK PLC need a more strategic approach, which I’ll try to outline in a future post. For now, I want to talk about apprenticeships, which must form a significant part of the solution.

The national apprenticeship levy has been criticised for being bureaucratic, failing some industries, and contributing to a drop in apprenticeship numbers in England since its introduction in 2018, though the pandemic was also a factor.

At SUEZ, guided and led by Claire Townsend, Resourcing Manager, we have worked with this and other government schemes, and have achieved a level of success.

Since 2018, the programme has expanded to the point where we have more than 120 apprentices across the organisation. The range of apprenticeship opportunities is vast – from business administration to mechanical engineer, and level 2 to degree-level qualifications. Over the course of this year, 66 of our people are due to complete their apprenticeships and another group of nine started last month.

The apprenticeship programme is central to a learning organisation, not only because it captures young talent, but it also facilitates continued learning and development. That’s true for both new and existing employees, who can join the programme.

Our company needs the very best people and minds to adapt to the exciting changes ahead in our industry and to provide the best service to our customers. And to make the most of this human capital we must embody a ‘learning organisation’. That means we encourage all our people to learn and grow continuously.

Our people must have a ‘growth mindset’ if they are to be innovative, embrace the digital challenge, take ownership of their careers, and help us drive our own positive disruption. This applies in every part of the business and at every level. But it must recognise the powerful contribution that apprentices can make. This is why we put our apprenticeship programme at the heart of our strategies for recruitment and talent development.

So, apprentices are encouraged to develop the same growth mindset we expect of their more experienced colleagues. We challenge apprentices to embrace new challenges, open themselves to inspiration from others, to be persistent while practising self-care, and to develop a love of the learning process. That means focusing on, and enjoying, the journey as well as the destination.

Our approach to continuous learning programme allows apprentices to gain skills beyond the boundaries of their course and role. Our e-learning platform provides access to modules available on everything from using Excel to looking after your wellbeing.

Apprentices can gain a more holistic understanding of our business by getting involved in business projects, shadowing senior managers, and networking opportunities within or outside the organisation. Opening someone’s eyes to the wider purpose of the business and the breadth of career opportunities within it also nurtures our team spirit and inspires trainees to raise their sights to new career goals.

Our apprentices – from trainee fitters, admin assistants and energy-from-waste technicians to business management graduates – are making an enhanced contribution to the business and adding real value to what we do, not just picking up paper certificates. We celebrated them and their achievements at a recent awards ceremony.

One of our MBA apprentices originally joined us as an Environmental Assistant and then trained as a hydrogeologist. The MBA project involved evaluating the opportunity for carbon insetting (where a company reduces carbon through initiatives in its own value chain) – in this case by planting trees at our landfill sites.

Another apprentice has described their surprise and satisfaction, at the age of 44, of becoming an apprentice and achieving level 4 certification from the CIPS (Chartered Institute of Purchasing & Supply). One of our IT Support Coordinators, who was shortlisted for the BAME Apprentice Network’s annual awards, is now considering a Masters.

As our market and customers’ needs change – and the circular economy makes good use of material resources – we need to challenge ourselves to develop new skills and competencies across our workforce. These skills are not only specific to jobs and tasks, but also involve critical thinking and problem-solving, initiative and entrepreneurship, the ability to analyse and assess information, curiosity, and imagination.

We pride ourselves on the SUEZ approach, but the success of our apprenticeship programme is very much down to the apprentices themselves. We thank them for choosing SUEZ to develop their careers, and continuing to learn and grow while contributing to the success of our business.