THE BLOG
25/10/2013 09:01 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Higher Apprenticeships - A Viable Business Alternative to Graduate Training Programmes

I am really passionate about getting entry-level training right within leading companies to build the future workforce. At Visa we took a different approach to many others, putting business needs first and thinking differently to a yearly graduate intake.

Visa had never before utilised a graduate style training programme. Although the company were employing qualified professionals to meet skill gaps within the organisation successfully, sometimes the employee's lack of knowledge about the business was prohibiting their success and progression. We needed to develop new employees with specific Visa knowledge; as well as the right skills and qualifications.

I was brought on almost three years ago to help build our future workforce through entry-level training programmes to integrate in-depth company understanding and loyalty - ensuring our staff and future leaders have both the skills and the business understanding to build a successful long term career with us. The key was developing an approach that would really work for our business.

Driven by this urgent business need, we developed an innovative training programme for entry level employees through a bespoke Higher Apprenticeship. In 2011 we started 14 Higher Apprentices with the business - these apprentices would learn with us for three years, studying for a foundation degree and a level 4 competence diploma. Although we also have Intermediate and Advanced Apprenticeships, we started the Higher Apprenticeships in two of our business areas, IT and financial accounting.

How does this method of training and development benefit our business? Taking on Higher Apprentices as opposed to graduates has enabled us to tailor the programme to the specific needs of our business. It wasn't an 'off the shelf' package.

For our core business function, IT, where we placed 70% of our first intake of apprentices, we worked to select the right partners and training providers, reviewing and asking for tenders from a number of different universities. We selected the Open University to provide the knowledge element to our programme as their delivery method was best suited to our organisation. Working with the Open University, where the apprentices are able to learn flexibly in the workplace using a blend of virtual delivery and tutor sessions, allows colleagues and managers to see and hear what our apprentices are learning, as opposed to them completing their education within the confines of a conventional university environment.

This knowledge is then shared across the business, motivating others. Being able to build what we need into the Apprenticeship programme, alongside what the apprentices need for career development and employability, has been a big investment and not necessarily the easiest way of developing a training programme, but it has definitely been the right way for us.

Our IT apprentices are on a three year Higher Apprenticeship programme. For the first two years they rotate around the business, learning how to design, build, test and support our network. Visa Europe is a membership organisation owned by the banks of Europe. The rotational approach to placements gives our apprentices a unique insight into our way of working and a clear understanding of our members needs. They then spend their third and final year developing their skills in a specific business practice area, and build their work objectives through firm links to the final year of their academic study.

So how productive were they in their first two years? When we designed the programme our main objective was to establish breadth of knowledge and collaborative working, which we believed would be achieved through time spent across all our business functions. The apprentices were quick to learn and integrate into their new teams although the rotational training aspect of the programme did create some frustration for the apprentices as they began to master skills in one area to be placed into the next. However, we were confident that experience and understanding across the business would benefit our long term goals, allowing the apprentices a unique insight into which specialist area their skills best fit. We are now entering the third year of our Higher Apprenticeship programme and this is where our return on expectation is clear, proving our training approach is achieving the intended outcomes.

This approach is also about helping our apprentices to build a network across the business. Already we have many examples of apprentices who have been able to tap into their learning through the various business divisions to quickly resolve a problem their teams were experiencing. This working style has injected true cross department and collaborative working into their teams which is vital for the long-term success of our business.

To encourage more of this type of working behaviour we have developed "Think-link" a collaborative process of gaining feedback from our apprentices on both their Apprenticeships and learnings for the business in the way we operate and deliver services. Already Think-link has made us look at, and improve internal technology but above all it builds a community that allows our apprentices to drive their learning into the heart of the business. Our apprentices are navigating the business in a unique manner and starting to impact change - and we believe this will help make them the future leaders within Visa. We are aiming for apprentices to make up 5% of our workforce and we are nearing this level.

The success of our Higher Apprenticeship programme has been so pronounced that we have developed pathways for our Business Administration apprentices to go onto after completing their Advanced 12-month (level 2) Apprenticeship. The calibre of our business administration apprentices was so strong across communications and HR, we have developed two new Higher Apprenticeships - one in HR (developed with CIPD) and one in PR and Communications (developed with PRCA).

Recognition for the innovative way in which we are now introducing entry-level employees into our business via this Apprenticeship programme has been overwhelming. We are proud to have achieved the first place Employer's Award from AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk and we have recently been presented the CIPD Developing Tomorrow's Workforce award. Our Higher Apprentices have also reached regional finals in the National Apprenticeship Awards, success we are hoping to build on - year on year.

The calibre of apprentices has been phenomenal. The change in university fees and the current job market have altered the way in which young people approach their future employment routes. The savvy amongst them are now thinking of smarter, more direct paths to their chosen careers by challenging the norm of university. It is this attitude, competence and drive we are seeking in future employees, skills we see in our apprentices. Apprentices have a loyalty and passion that I have not experienced as strongly in other new starters. They make for a more loyal workforce with an embedded understanding of our business culture, superseding a standard graduate programme for these reasons.