Selecting apprentices: lessons we can learn from Germany

selecting-apprentices
Apprentices in vehicle maintenance at Deutsche Bahn in Germany/Action Press/REX/Shutterstock

As National Apprenticeship Week begins, Howard Grosvenor looks at how German companies are selecting apprentices by supporting candidates to identify and apply for the right programme.

The UK Government is taking active steps to create a “world class apprenticeship system”, in order to strengthen the economy, deliver the skills that employers need and give young people a viable alternative to university.

The apprenticeship levy aims to help create three million new apprenticeships by 2020. Other European countries are striving to do something similar. One that has got it right is Germany, and the success of their national model is something that we’re all aiming to replicate.

Apprenticeships are integral to the education system in Germany and they have undoubtedly played a part in the country’s economic success.

Germany has a “dual system” whereby apprenticeships combine theoretical training in the classroom‚ funded by the state, with hands-on practical experience in the workplace, funded by employers.

It also has tradition on its side. Since the Middle Ages – and Germany’s medieval guilds – technical skills have been highly valued in society. Consequently, many prominent figures, such as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, started their careers with vocational training.

The UK has its work cut out in trying to emulate this. For instance, we have a strong services sector, which places less emphasis on specific, technical skills.

Also, studying for an undergraduate degree has traditionally been the preferred option for our talented school leavers. But, increasingly, the times are changing. For young people, the appeal of apprenticeships – and their combination of on-the-job training and academic study without debt – is growing.

Growing appeal

Equally, apprenticeships are becoming more attractive for employers. Grants are now available for businesses to recruit their first apprentice; trailblazer groups have developed apprenticeship standards defining the skills required in a range of professions; pioneering employers are also setting a good example.

Some, such as those in the “5% Club”, have committed to create apprenticeship schemes for at least 5% of their workforce within five years.

However, the real challenge for UK employers isn’t so much introducing apprenticeships, it’s attracting and selecting the right applicants.

Recruiting apprentices is a different proposition from recruiting other staff. Because they’re usually school leavers, your candidates will all have similar qualifications and they’re unlikely to have much previous work experience (if any), which makes it difficult for them to answer competency-based questions at an interview. So how do you choose between them?

Like their German counterparts, many of the UK’s leading apprentice recruiters have found that the answer is through assessment. But what should you assess?

Best fit for the organisation

Essentially it all boils down to one key question: will the candidate behave in a way that fits your organisation and fits the specific role they’re applying for? That’s ultimately what you want to know.

It’s all about how well they match the role, whether or not they’ll fit within your culture and whether or not they’ll feel engaged and motivated to achieve their potential.

Their behaviour will depend on their values and their attitude to learning. This will be reflected in aspects such as their reliability, punctuality and conscientiousness. Depending on the role, there may be other behaviours you require, such as teamwork or creative thinking.

The information you’ll need to make an objective and informed decision can usually be obtained from a range of different assessments, deployed thoughtfully at different stages from attraction through to final hiring.

Such assessments include values and interests based questionnaires, skills tests, situational judgement questionnaires, interviews (face-to-face and video) ability tests and personality measures.

One interesting challenge that many large employers of apprentices face is that of choice. Major corporations don’t provide one single apprenticeship scheme. As they have many specialist divisions, they offer a whole of host of apprenticeship options including practical, technical, specialist, project management, supply chain management, business management, design, maintenance and logistics.

Prospective candidates are asked to choose which of these apprenticeship schemes they’d like to apply for – and sometimes they’re only allowed to make one application per year.

Burden of choice

This puts the burden of choice onto young and inexperienced candidates, who are left to decide for themselves which apprenticeship programme would be best suited for them. The stakes are high here as the programme they join will determine their ultimate career path.

One again, it seems, Germany has a model that can help here. We’ve worked with Siemens in Germany to develop an online pre-application assessment which analyses the preferences and strengths of school leavers and helps them choose the right apprenticeship programme.

The company offers 200 different apprenticeships, so the results guide young people by suggesting which programme is best suited to them. The assessment is not timed, nor is it “scored” in any way. It simply helps prospective candidates to decide which apprenticeship programme they should apply for.

As the appeal of apprenticeships grows in the UK – both for organisations and for young people – employers will need to ensure they have appropriate processes in place to select the best candidates.

However, if you can help those candidates to identify and apply for the right apprenticeship programme, it creates an additional win-win situation that benefits them and you.

On one hand, it enables them to pinpoint their efforts and focus their attention on a single, specific apprenticeship option. On the other, it means that your applicant pool for each apprenticeship programme will be populated with better-suited candidates.

Howard Grosvenor

About Howard Grosvenor

Howard Grosvenor is a chartered occupational psychologist and director of professional services for international assessment specialist cut-e.