Posted by on 12 March 2018

Jonathan Cresswell
Head of Apprenticeships
University of Exeter

Reflections on our Approach to Apprenticeships

After my one year secondment to People Services as Head of Apprenticeships, I thought I would write an article focusing on my reflections on the impact of our approach to.

Progressive mastery and continual improvement are principles that the University works towards through our primary function as a Higher Education provider. Indeed the University’s mission is to “make the exceptional happen by challenging traditional thinking and defying conventional boundaries”.

There are many opportunities for training and developing our new and existing staff through our dedicated People Services Learning and Development team, and through bespoke/specialist training courses funded through college/service budgets.

People are an organisation’s greatest asset, and apprenticeships [in my opinion] are an opportunity for the University to be able to provide additional support and development to those who may need up-skilling, re-skilling or are at the beginning of their careers with us. We are fortunate that our senior management teams, from our Vice Chancellors Executive Group (VCEG) and our Professional Services Leadership Team (PSLT) to managers within each college and service, have been very supportive of the apprenticeship schemes at the University.

There has never been a better time to recruit and apprentice or to do an apprenticeship.

Short-term pain, long-term gain

With Brexit looming, and the University undergoing transformational change, I have been looking at ways to ensure we have a sustainable skills resource for our staff through apprenticeships in order to be able to maintain our high-quality levels of service.

Recruiting new staff into our specialist roles can sometimes be challenging. According to Kevin Green, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) “Last year [2017] we had 9 areas of skills shortages, now [2018] we have 43 areas. Every single type of engineering is in short supply, from mechanical to software, civil to electrical”. REC director of policy Tom Hadley also commented that “This latest drop in the number of EU workers coming into the country will put a further strain on employers. We are already battling with skills shortages and this is a challenge for the whole labour market, at both graduate and non-graduate level.”

Confronted with the challenges in our home and EU labour markets, apprenticeships may potentially be a sustainable approach to helping secure a skilled workforce of the future – Short-term pain for long-term gain – Investing in our staff and protecting the skills of our workforce is a necessary commitment.

Apprenticeships offer the University a sustainable means of ensuring that we have a skilled future workforce.  Although our apprenticeship strategy is at the end of its first year, we have already seen improvements throughout our colleges and services.

Over the past year I have engaged with our management teams and services to brief them on how apprenticeships might benefit their services and identify potential skills gaps. I partnered with local high-quality training providers, such as Exeter College and Cornwall College Group, to identify training and development opportunities offered by the providers that would meet our business needs.

Apprenticeships bring a variety of benefits to both the apprentice and the University as an employer.

For individuals apprenticeships provide a job accompanied by a skills development programme delivered through guided learning and assessment.  An apprentice gains valuable up-to-date technical knowledge, develops transferable skills and can use their new skills in support of their current role.

For the University, Apprenticeships are an effective means of developing and up-skilling our new and existing staff, improving overall productivity.

Apprenticeships by their very nature embrace a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.  High-quality training, delivered through approved training providers, ensure that our staff have the skills, knowledge and behaviours necessary to succeed in their role.

“So where’s the pain” I hear you say. Whilst there may be an initial loss of productivity due to the time away from the day-job, in the longer term, the new skills that the person brings back to the workplace should compensate for this. During their time conducting off-the-job training the apprentice will be learning skills and knowledge that directly relates to their occupation, and will therefore be able to put their new skills into practice the very next day.  This means they will become more and more productive and will be able to complete tasks more quickly and efficiently as time progresses bringing a new skill set into the workplace, stretching beyond the apprentice into the wider team. Therefore, it’s important to look at the long-term benefits and future increase in productivity through staff development.

Impact of the Apprenticeship Levy

Historically Apprenticeships at the university had been employed by a small number of enthusiastic recruiting managers who dealt with external training providers directly.

The introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in May 2017 gave the University an excellent opportunity to be able to promote and embed apprenticeships, increase numbers of apprenticeship new starts and offer additional training and development opportunities to those who may not have previously had the chance. This meant that individuals, Colleges and Services could utilise the Apprenticeship Levy funding to cover the costs of apprenticeship training and assessment – making training more accessible without an impact on training resource constraints.

Seizing the opportunity the apprenticeship levy has given us, we began to build on our apprentice numbers. Initial take up was quite slow due to new processes and our understanding of the new levy, however, after setting up processes and procedures to make it as easy as possible for both the recruiting manager and the apprentice we have seen exponential growth across our colleges and services.

The figures published in the DfE provisional report shows a 26 percent fall compared to the same quarter the previous year, however, we have not seen this at the University of Exeter. To give you an idea of the positive growth we can refer to some figures:

1 April 2016 to 31 March 2017

  • 5 apprentices worked at the University before this period
  • 10 apprentices began to work for the University
  • 13 apprentices worked for the University at the end of this period
  • 1.3% of all new starts were apprentices

1 April 2017 to 31 March 2018

  • 13 apprentices worked at the University before this period
  • 30 apprentices began to work for the University
  • 34 apprentices worked for the University at the end of this period
  • 3.9% of all new starts were apprentices

On top of our 200% increase over the past year, there are already 20 apprenticeship new starts scheduled for 2018.

The University of Exeter currently has apprentices studying at all levels between 2 and 6, employed in 12 of our college/service areas, across our campuses, in Devon and Cornwall.

Our apprentices work across different occupations such as engineering (electrical, electronic, manufacturing & maintenance), business administration, Digital and Technology Solutions, domestic plumbing, laboratory technicians and scientists, leadership and management, digital marketing, early years, horticulture and arboriculture.

Key to our success

The key to our success has been to embed apprenticeships into our strategic workforce planning.  This ensures the long-term success of our apprenticeships strategy and will provide a platform for effectively up-skilling/training our workforce to help address skill gaps and encourage continuous development.

Our new approach offers a holistic approach, aligned to our Attract, Perform and Retain People Strategy, which gives greater support to both our apprentices and our recruiting managers at all stages of the apprenticeship:

  • Attract – Attract outstanding individuals to come and work here. Our apprenticeship programmes will help to improve social mobility, diversity, and routes of entry into the University. We have embedded apprenticeships into our strategic workforce planning, talent management, and career pathways. Established links with local and national training providers, ensure high-quality delivery of training and support for our apprentices and their line managers.

  • Perform – Develop our exceptional people so they can perform to the best of their abilities and achieve their full potential. We ensure that our apprentices develop themselves both personally and professionally, that high-quality training is delivered through our training providers, and that our apprentices are fully supported in their role.

  • Retain – Retain (where possible) and reward our people helping to secure our position as a high-performing global institution, and enhancing our reputation as a great employer.

Our proposed People Development strategy is focused on meeting diverse needs with diverse opportunities. This strategy also includes apprenticeship opportunities for people who are looking for more sustained, accredited development. Additionally we map a variety of apprenticeships specific to professions/occupations in our evolving Professional Development Frameworks.


I have been conducting a number of surveys to understand potential issues, awareness and the overall impact apprentices have been having at the University.

Our managers’ survey was sent to all staff at the University with line management responsibility, whether they had an apprentice or not. I conducted 2 surveys, each 6 months apart.  In comparison to the first managers’ survey run in June 2017, our second survey showed an increase in awareness of apprenticeships across all areas.  Our managers were able to add their comments in the surveys, and it was nice to read such positive comments:

  • Important to reinvest in future skilled trades persons and ensure existing skills are passed on and not lost.
  • I think that it is a great way to gain experience and get people into work. We benefited from an apprentice in our office just because it gave us a continuance of staffing for 2 years rather than the alternative of a one-year, term-time only admin assistant.
  • Mentoring an apprentice is definitely great CPD for line managers.
  • All areas to have apprentices, to learn from older staff the skills required, before the older staff leave.
  • I have been working closely with the two CLES apprentices and the only complaint I have is I wish we could get more apprentices!
  • We need more of them.
  • We need to have more in the trade areas.

“But what about the apprentices?” I hear you say…it was very important to me that I captured their thoughts too, and again the results speak for themselves (% of apprentices are satisfied or very satisfied):

  • 82.4% that the Apprenticeship has provided them with better skills or knowledge related to my current or desired area of work.
  • 82.4% with the information received during their University induction.
  • 91.2% with the information received during their local induction at my place of work.
  • 85.3% that they have been made to feel welcome and feel part of the team.
  • 79.4% that the Apprenticeship has improved their ability to do their job.
  • 79.4% that the Apprenticeship has provided them with transferable skills.

Our apprentices said:

  • Having various different working places, we are able to move around and experience the different ways of working in other disciplines.
  • My team are amazing and have helped me so much and made me feel so welcome in my role.
  • It’s really good place to learn I’m very satisfied and enjoying all my training.
  • I got to meet lots of different people doing different jobs also within the university which gives you a good understanding of different roles to mine.
  • It helped me to get a full time job at the university
  • The team/area I had been placed in was incredibly welcoming and supportive from the start, while I have had several line managers throughout the year they were all encouraging and provided me with lots of opportunities for professional and personal development. The University has an immense number of courses that I or my line managers could recommend to enrol on, and this has given me a great boost in terms of knowledge and skill gains. As well as this I have been in the fortunate position of having a varying workload where, as advised and suggested by my line manager, I was able to join other departments for shadowing where I could learn different systems and objectives, ultimately making positive contributions for the other teams I have worked within.
  • I have been well supported and looked after at the University and feel it is providing me with a very positive learning experience
  • The classes are interesting and a good mix of group work/PowerPoint/lone activities. It’s nice to take time out to reflect on/grow my knowledge and skills. It also feels nice to be working towards a qualification.
  • Learning new things everyday working with a great team
  • I will have to say I feel very lucky to of secured a place on an apprenticeship, that I would have to say is one of the best opportunities one could have in Cornwall.

It is hard to say whether our apprenticeships programme has had an effect on retention, diversity, or reduction in the use of transient labour at this point in time due to us only being one year into our new apprenticeships scheme. What I can say is that the levels on interest around recruiting apprentices, developing existing staff and utilising our apprenticeship levy are high and we have an ongoing commitment to supporting the apprenticeship reform.

In terms of impact, our managers have number of constraints and challenges on the ground such as:

  • New entrant apprenticeships are based on natural turnover.
  • Some teams are relatively small/thematic and would be limited on the number of apprenticeships that could be sustained.
  • The operational needs of the service area will determine whether the off-the-job training commitment for an apprenticeship can be accommodated.
  • Teams that are sustaining high levels of change and fluctuations in workload will be limited on the number of Apprenticeships that could be sustained.
  • Need to ensure that the impact of significant numbers needing to be internally supervised/trained does not weaken efficiency or effectiveness of discrete teams.

Apprenticeships for our staff are an investment, and will help our staff upskill/multi-skill in their occupation area.  They will bring in new ideas, and through networking with colleagues on the course will be able to share best practices.

Apprenticeships can also be used to support training and development opportunities identified in our teams annual appraisals, and bring in new skills to newly ‘transformed’ teams. At this point in time almost half of our apprentices are current staff.

Final thoughts

The University of Exeter, and I, are proud to support apprenticeships.  Our apprentices perform exceptionally well and add value to their teams from the day they join.  We are committed to continuing our apprenticeship programme and building upon it year on year.

Over the next few years I expect our apprentice numbers to rise even further. We are working on a number of apprenticeship schemes in Business Administration, Finance, and Leadership; with the latter being delivered at levels 6 and 7 on our Streatham Campus through our Business School.  Our Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) Degree Apprenticeships team are also working with our Colleges to increase our portfolio of degree apprenticeships we offer at the university. This will no doubt be beneficial to both the internal and external audience.

The possibilities and opportunities that apprenticeships bring are exciting and are increasing as more and more trailblazers are signed off by the Institute for Apprenticeships (IFA).

To find out more about apprenticeship opportunists for new and current staff:

Skip to toolbar