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How to hire and get the most out of apprentices

Meet skilled labour shortages head-on with an apprenticeship program. Learn how to find, train, and get your trades apprentices adding value quickly.

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Apprentices get a bit of a bad rap, but they can be an invaluable resource for your company — provided you know how to find and get the most out of them. In this article, you’ll discover everything you need to know to future-proof your workforce with an apprentice training program.

A solution to the labour shortage

A solution to the labour shortage

It’s tough to find a good tradie these days.

The skilled labour shortage has been going on for a while now, and COVID-19 has only made it even more difficult to find talented employees. Even once borders reopen, this challenge is likely to continue: Infrastructure Australia estimates project managers may struggle to recruit skilled workers for one in three industry jobs by 2023. In NZ, nearly 70% of construction companies say it’s harder now to find tradies than it was 12 months ago.

In this hiring climate, you have two choices:

  1. You can get into a bidding war with every other business, or

  2. You can turn your business into a training organisation and create your own workforce with apprentices.

Apprentices get a bit of a bad rap, but they can be invaluable to your company — provided you know how to find and get the most out of them.

So how do you build an apprenticeship program that gives as good as it gets? In this guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to find and get the most out of apprentices in your organisation.


Before you take on an apprentice

Apprentices can be a fantastic resource, but they’re also a limited one that needs to be used wisely. Your business needs to be in the right position if you want to get the most value from an apprentice program.

Before you take on an apprentice, weigh up the pros and cons and evaluate if your business is up to the task.

Pros of apprentices:

  • They’re a blank slate. A new apprentice won’t come with any bad habits and you can train them to work the way you like to work.
  • An extra set of hands. You’ll have more hands on deck to help with basic tasks, like running leads or digging. This also makes your existing workforce more productive.
  • A fresh set of eyes. Their fresh perspective may surprise you and help you solve common problems in new ways.
  • It’s rewarding. You get to watch them grow. There’s nothing better than seeing a former apprentice become a fully-fledged tradie running jobs.
  • More stability. You’ll have apprentices in your workforce for anywhere between one to four years, depending on the apprenticeship.
  • Future-proof your business. You’ll always have a succession of tradies coming through, which means you’ll be less affected by future labour shortages.

Cons of apprentices:

  • It’s an investment. It takes time and energy to take an employee from apprentice to tradie. If you can’t commit to years of training, it might be best to weigh up all your options.
  • You have to meet your responsibilities. Apprentices aren’t just an extra pair of hands. You have to meet your employer responsibilities; teaching them, supervising them, allowing them the time to study and meeting minimum wages.
  • It can be risky. Not all apprentices are going to be superstars. Unfortunately, there are some bad eggs out there, while others may leave for another company or career.

If you’ve answered yes to all of the above, it’s time to move on to the next step: hiring the right people.


The hiring process

Finding the right apprentices starts with a robust hiring process. If you can nail the three pieces of the puzzle — where to look, what traits to look out for, and what to work out during the interview — you’ll have a much better chance of striking gold in your apprentices.

Where to look

  • Word of mouth. Ask your existing staff, clients, and family or friends to put the word out there. The best part about this is that they can vouch for their attitude and abilities.

  • Talk to local high schools. These schools might have their own programs or career days where you can enlist interested students.

  • Get involved in gateway programs. This is a fantastic way to give people a go and find apprentices that are keen and eager to learn.

  • Go directly to apprentice companies. This is an especially good option if you want some extra support bringing on your apprentice.

    Some of the more well-known education providers include:

    Australia: MEGT, VERTO, Sarina Russo, and Apprenticeships Australia.

    New Zealand: The Skills Organisation, Apprenticeship Training Trust, ETCO, MasterLink

What to look for

Apprentices don’t have prior experience or training, so you need to base your decision on other factors like attitude and willingness to learn. There are some other telltale signs that can reveal whether a potential candidate will cut it.

First, check their history. Look for someone who’s committed themselves to a sport or a hobby for a decent period of time, as this shows their dedication and willingness to work hard. If a potential candidate has close family members who are tradies, this can also work in their favour. Having been exposed to the trades their whole life, they’ll know that it takes a fair amount of grit to be a tradie.

Last but not least, look at how they present themselves. Your apprentices represent you and your business — and if they can’t scrub up for an interview, they won’t do it on the job!

Toolbox Tip

Look for an apprentice with people skills. Apprentices will be working closely with your existing workforce and, eventually, your clients. Find someone who is approachable, polite, and communicates clearly.

What to ask during the interview

  • Check if they’re willing to work through long days, weeks, or months. Their answer should tell you if they’ll be able to stick it out through the slog and become a tradesperson.
  • Confirm the hours they’re available, their study commitments and what their wages will be (ensuring they are in keeping with your legal obligations). The first two years of being an apprentice can be pretty rough. Make sure they know what they’re getting into and have enough support to help them during this stage.
  • See how they respond to tough situations. You want an apprentice who’s going to be proactive and be able to think on their feet. Ask them about a problem at work or school, and how they sorted it out for themselves.

Take advantage of schemes and grants

Most countries offer support for businesses that take on apprentices. These can take some of the financial weight off your shoulders, particularly in the early days.

Get to know the different options in your country:

Keep in mind that schemes aren’t a hall pass! You’ll still need to meet certain obligations and requirements to qualify for funding.


4 secrets to success with apprentices

Ask any tradie, and they’ll tell you the first year of having apprentices around feels a bit like having a toddler in the workplace. They’re green and need a lot of training to understand the lay of the land.

Don’t worry though — this doesn’t mean you’ll have to wait two or three years for them to start adding value. Follow these four tips and you’ll get more out of your apprentices sooner, rather than later.

Get them up to speed quickly

You can’t just throw apprentices in the deep end. For many, this is their first full-time job, so they’ll need to learn the ropes of being on the job as well as learn new skills.

That’s why the best way to get your apprentices up and running is to start them out with jobs where they can learn and retain information. Put them on tasks that are repetitive and straightforward, new housing projects are ideal for this as the work is well laid out. After six months, they should have the base level of knowledge needed to progress to other tasks, like renovations or simple maintenance jobs.

Toolbox Tip

Document an induction plan that takes your apprentice through the basics of your business and your expectations of them as an employee. Think dress code, hours of operation and how they’ll balance work time with their study. Be sure to also cover off access to amenities, who to contact if they are sick and any important business policies and procedures, like Health and Safety.

Maximise the efficiency of existing tradies

Apprentices should be used to make other tradespeople more effective. The key is to work smarter, not harder — and that means having apprentices do easier tasks, while seasoned tradies take on the high value work.

Assign your trades apprentices to the tasks that your existing tradies don’t need to be doing, such as digging water mains, getting out the cables, drilling holes, and cleaning the spouting. You’ll get more done as a team, and everyone will be playing to their strengths.

Keep an eye on your apprentices

Legislation requires apprentices to be fully supervised and for good reason. Apprentices who are left to their own devices could make big mistakes that will end up costing everyone time and money, as well as potentially endangering themselves and others.

Dedicate the resources on hand to invest in properly supervising and guiding your apprentice, particularly in that crucial first year. You’ll also need plenty of patience — apprentices will inevitably make errors and ask questions as part of the learning process.

For simple tasks your apprentices will need to do often, create a Checklist in your Job Management App that lists step-by-step instructions they can follow and tick off as they go.

Learn More

Focus on engagement

Apprentices often get stuck with the grunt work, which can cause them to lose interest fast. It’s not your job to motivate your apprentices, but providing them with opportunities to learn and upskill can only help keep them engaged in their work. You can set the scene for their future too, by giving clear direction on career progression and the goals or milestones they need to hit to get there.

Culture counts as well. Make sure they feel supported and thank them for their work, no matter how mundane the task. A positive working environment and little gestures go a long way. The odd lunch shout will not only keep your tradies on site being productive for more hours in the day, but can make your apprentices feel valued and want to keep showing up. They’ll also be more likely to stick around once they’re qualified, which is the ultimate outcome.

Toolbox Tip

If your apprentice proves themselves, pay them what they are worth (and in line with market rates) especially once they are qualified or nearing being so. Even if your relationship is good, holding off rewarding them financially will only led them to look elsewhere.


Managing an underperforming apprentice

Not all apprentices are going to be future superstars. At one point or another, you’ll have an apprentice on the books who just isn’t performing — and you’ll need to figure out the best course of action.

Check your expectations

Apprentices aren’t fully trained tradies and can’t be expected to perform at that level. It takes constant feedback and training to reap the benefits of your apprenticeship program.

Before you jump into action, ask yourself:

  • Have I provided enough positive and constructive feedback?
  • Have we given the apprentice clear guidelines on what’s acceptable and what isn’t?
  • Did we provide enough training?
  • Is everyone on the team giving them the support they need to succeed?

If you’ve answered no to any of these, correct your own behaviour first and then wait and see if this helps before taking further action.

Recognise the warning signs of underperformance

An underperforming apprentice is someone who doesn’t meet the clear standards of work that you expect them to.

Some of the warning signs of underperformance might include regularly turning up late, being tardy with their paperwork, or being disrespectful with the tools or the team.

Dealing with underperformance

The main thing to remember with underperformance is to nip it in the bud as early as possible. Don’t wait around to see if it’ll magically improve — this only sends the signal that what your apprentice is doing is okay.

Talk to them about the problem at hand to start. Clearly outline the areas where they are falling short, and ask them if there’s anything they need in order to improve. The sooner you can get to the root cause of the issue, the easier it’ll be to fix it.

If a chat doesn’t solve the problem, you may need to issue a formal warning or take disciplinary action. Just make sure to check Fair Work Australia or Employment New Zealand first and follow the right steps to protect yourself and your business.


Future proof your workforce with trades apprentices

In order to grow your business you need to grow your staff. Sure, it’s not always easy training apprentices, but it’s also not easy finding tradespeople that fit into your mould.

If you can train one apprentice per two tradespeople, and aim to get them upskilled and in a van, you’ll always have a succession of tradies coming through.

A final word: it’s not easy turning your business into a training organisation, but think of it as an investment that will become your competitive advantage in the long run. Once this culture comes into the play, life becomes easier for everyone — including your existing tradies!

At the end of the day, you too will walk away with a sense of accomplishment having given back to your trade, passed on skills that were once passed onto you and transformed your apprentices into skilled tradespeople.

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