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You’re hired: Walker Sime takes its apprentices – and apprenticeships – to the next level

Walker Sime Apprentices

In recognition of National Apprenticeship Week, Caroline Bacon, Director of People & Culture and Machala Campbell, Business Improvement & Development Officer, explore what it takes to deliver Walker Sime’s successful apprenticeship programme.

We’re about to watch another apprentice, Joe Lamb, progress to the ranks of our permanent quantity surveyors. Two more (Leighton Le Carpentier, a quantity surveyor, and Sam Graham, a project manager) have yet to complete their apprenticeship but have had their retention confirmed. More are set to join this summer. To date, our overall retention rate (that is, the numbers progressing to permanent employment with the company) is 100%. The gender split is 60/40 male/female – noteworthy in many industries and especially so in construction.

It is no accident. For us, operating a successful apprentice scheme takes a committed team laying the tracks ahead of each apprentice’s ambitions. And it starts at high school.

Showcasing opportunity

“Few young people know what a quantity surveyor does,” explains Caroline Bacon. “We do school careers fairs to raise awareness and show that construction is more than ‘just’ bricks and mortar. We want to showcase the opportunities available in construction.

“That was the case with Joe, who we met at a school careers fair in Saddleworth. I had a conversation with him and his dad about quantity surveying (QS). He didn’t really know what QS involved so we agreed to give him some work experience on condition that he first went away and researched what a QS does and prepared a brief. He did that, and was then with us on work experience throughout sixth form.

“Because of the drive he showed, I said we’d take him on. He joined the accelerated RICS accredited QS course at Salford University. It’s a three-year fast-tracked course and at the end of it he gets his degree. Joe has been with us as an apprentice for three years now, with two years of work experience before that. This summer he’ll graduate and will be promoted to a full QS with us.

“Leighton joined us last April. He’s now at Salford on the same course as Joe. Sam is a project management apprentice who joined us last June and enrolled last September at the University of Bolton.”

Both recent recruits are relishing the opportunity.

“I’ve worked on projects worth in excess of £60 million whilst in my first year of the apprenticeship,” explains Leighton, “which has given me an insight to how a big project and its finances are managed.”

“The biggest thing I have got out of the apprenticeship experience so far is the valuable knowledge and experience from being in the Manchester office,” adds Sam. “I spend the majority of my time employed with Walker Sime so I’m able to talk to lots of people within the business, not only to help with my current tasks, but also to ask questions that build my overall knowledge.”

The modern apprenticeship

Machala Campbell stresses the importance of National Apprentice Week (NAW) in promoting a new image of apprenticeships. “No young person remembers the old YTS scheme and the stigma it attracted. But their parents do, and it’s parents who are trying to guide their children now. We need to educate and inform them about how things have changed and about what a modern apprenticeship really involves. National Apprentice Week can do that. But we see it as our role too.”

The best they can be

Walker Sime has big plans for its apprentices, as Caroline explains:

“We want to bring in an apprentice each year for each of our service lines (QS, PM, Quantity Surveying Infrastructure and Central Services). To enable that, we’re currently building structured training plans for each service line that will ultimately combine to form a Walker Sime Academy.

“We’re committing to our apprentices for the long term. We think of them as permanent members of the team and the future of the business, and we believe our actions show that. They’ve already had wage increases beyond the national apprentice rate. By the time they’ve completed university all our apprentices will have had five year relationships with the business. We expect a lot, but if we put the time and effort in we know we’ll reap the rewards. We’re throwing everything at them so they can be the best they can be – and it’s making a difference.”

The apprentices agree. “It’s helped me to mature and be more confident in different situations that I never would have experienced had I not taken this opportunity,” says Joe.

Leighton says: “It has allowed me, in only my first year, to gain so much valuable experience and develop my technical skills, whilst studying on a day release basis.”

A successful apprentice scheme relies on the quality of its apprentices and its training. But what happens when that training isn’t available?

“Not every course we need exists at present,” says Machala, citing the example of Sam, who’s currently completing a  Level 4 diploma in construction until the structure of his degree course is formally signed off. “One of the challenges is you have to find ways around what currently exists. We’re having to work with local universities, being creative to find ways to get our apprentices through and into the business because it’s not all set up right now.”

Seeking “switched on people”

What does a good prospective apprentice look like? Caroline has a clear understanding of the traits she’s looking for. “You have to have the right attitude – be willing to learn, willing to roll your sleeves up and be punctual. You have to have some personality – a degree of confidence in your own ability, although we’ll see every apprentice develop that confidence further over the life of the apprenticeship.

“That’s important because you will meet clients. You’ll sit in on meetings and take minutes so you get a feel for what it’s like to work with them.”

Walker Sime’s apprentices have come from careers fairs, referrals and from organisations like Skills for Solutions and Business Growth Hub, but for people with the right aptitude and attitude, she welcomes the direct approach.

“If you’re reading this and are inspired to get in touch, please do. We want to hear from switched on people.” Caroline emphasises that very much includes applications from women. “I’m a board member. I sit with six or seven men but I know I’m their equal – and so do they. I feel proud that I’ve reached this position. Why wouldn’t you want to be part of an industry where you could make such a difference?”

The power of apprenticeships

“Everyone deserves an opportunity,” says Machala. “Apprenticeships offer so much for so many people. And when people are struggling to get their CVs seen, National Apprentice Week is a great platform for people who want to succeed, and for organisations who want to showcase the opportunities that are available.”

Sam agrees. “Apprenticeships offer the most upside for young people as they can gain valuable working experience, while tending to their studies. It gives younger people the best of both worlds.”

To explore apprenticeship opportunities at Walker Sime get in touch.