Two-way radio apprenticeships: in short supply
Written by: Vaughan O’Grady | Published:

Apprenticeships in the two-way radio sector are useful – when they are available. But that’s the problem: they aren’t always offered – especially technical ones. Vaughan O’Grady asks why

Apprenticeships in the two-way radio sector cover a wide range of functions. As Paul Griffiths, group head of HR with Sepura, says: “Roles are available throughout the business. We currently have apprentices making valuable contributions within our software, product marketing and IT, but all areas of the business are open to new joiners to apply for roles.”

And the courses, when offered, have real value. By and large, says Chris Pateman, CEO of the Federation of Communication Services (FCS), courses do, as the government requires, “give a career path equal to higher education”, and “feature 30 weeks’ employment each year”.

Vocational qualifications are, of course, not uniform. They range from Level 1 (which Pateman describes as basic, GCSE-standard comprehension, IT and literacy), through Level 2 (O level standard), Level 3 (A level standard), Level 4 (foundation degree standard), Level 5 (bachelor’s degree standard) and up to Level 7 (MBA standard).

“The whole panoply of vocational standards is cross-benchmarked against more conventional, academic routes at every level of achievement,” Pateman explains. “In reality, most first-jobbers will embark upon a Level 2 programme, progressing to a Level 3. Level 2 and 3 qualifications get the most attention, because they have historically been the ones which most obviously fit younger people for the world of work, and,” he adds, “the ones which have historically attracted taxpayer subsidy to cover the training costs and sometimes the employment costs.”

This is clearly attractive to companies running such schemes, except, Pateman says, funding “changes just about every year”: targets, rules, age limits and grants come and go with each government. “It’s always worth checking,” he advises.

The legal and financial implications of hiring apprentices are a lot more clear-cut. Legally, most apprentices these days are required to be employees, and on the PAYE payroll, and they enjoy the same holiday rights, among other benefits. “The days of having a ‘placement’ are behind us,” says Pateman.

Most modern apprenticeship courses are built around National Occupational Standards (NOSs), which Pateman describes as “discrete pieces of learning or competences which can be assessed and appraised empirically: the ability to create and populate spreadsheets, for example; the ability to extract and act upon appropriate information from an incoming telephone call; and the ability to use a spectrum analyser to undertake prescribed basic installation quality tests. NOSs are assembled and combined into larger modules of learning to create apprenticeship pathways.”

Griffiths describes Sepura’s approach thus: “It is key to us that apprentices are equal employees, and they undergo a similar integration that other employees would have, while also having additional support to aid them with their studies and career development. Therefore, all [our] apprentices undergo a thorough introduction to the business, including an induction with team leaders and management representatives. Apprentices are then supported through their placements with training that is relevant to their role – for example, modules covering software development.”

Mike Norfield, CEO of the Simoco Wireless Solutions Group, adds: “It’s all about variety and the unique skills of the individual. The first year involves rotating between all the [company’s] different departments, getting a flavour of how each one works and, just as importantly, understanding how they all fit together. The second year will be focused on a specific area, depending on the skills and enthusiasms of the individual. For example, a recent apprentice, whom we ended up hiring as an engineer, spent his second year in the Projects Department, focusing on skills surrounding installation, maintenance, design and configuration of radio systems.”

The pay may be relatively low, but, says Pateman, the benefits of an apprenticeship are far from modest: “An apprenticeship pathway offers the trainee a trade-off between learning the job and gaining a recognised qualification against the relatively low salary level.” Apprenticeships can be particularly useful for individuals who may have left school with few qualifications.

Pateman also points out that “courses are managed largely by the trainees themselves (using a web portal to capture evidence of their progress) and checked by third-party providers, so quality is independently monitored and self-criticism is fostered”. Such guarantees make courses more appealing to employers too, as does a predictable cost of employment while training and, potentially, having a useful and productive member of staff at the end of it all.

Chloe Wesley is a product marketing apprentice with Sepura. She says: “As a career move it offered me transferable skills and experience, and a route into highly skilled, well-remunerated roles.”

As for the course, she says: “I felt a working environment was the best way to learn new skills, while also giving me a door into the working world.” However, tellingly perhaps, she adds: “It was equally important to me to start earning money right away and to avoid building up a large debt at university.”

She continues: “I also really enjoy the opportunity to learn about the different roles within the organisation and to understand where I might want to develop my career in the short to medium term.” And she is gaining higher-level qualifications, learning about workplace expectations, working with different individuals and departments and developing strong technical skills. “All this,” she points out, “while earning a wage and hopefully gaining a job offer at the end of my apprenticeship.” Even a university education might have trouble matching that.

The problem is that, especially where apprenticeships in technical areas such as engineering are involved, smaller companies cannot match what Sepura and others on the manufacturing side of the business can offer. As Griffiths says: “Feedback from our apprentices was that they chose the placement at Sepura as it was among the best on offer based on salary and working environment.”

In fact, Pateman says he gets little sense of any growing take-up of technical apprenticeships within the business radio dealer community. “FCS’s well-meaning attempts to create specific, detailed, bespoke radio industry apprenticeships at Level 2 and 3 have foundered largely because the industry is too small to recruit large and consistent numbers every year,” he explains. “Finding individuals who have an innate empathic understanding of radio physics and are willing to work for £3.50 per hour is harder than finding people who are willing to work for £3.50 per hour and learn the details on the job.” In addition, why would a promising would-be engineer not choose BT or British Aerospace as a career path? Talent-spotting from a wider pool, however, might be a way forward (see box).

That’s not the only difficulty. Shona Barnett, Syndico’s operations director, is clear on the benefits of training – for an interesting reason. “We are very much in favour of offering quality training to young people – [members of] the [reseller] channel struggle to find great, qualified, trained staff to join their teams in junior technical roles. Syndico is very keen to offer a training programme to provide such young people so that they are available for the channel. After all, we are very clear that our partners’ success is all that will make us successful – it isn’t totally altruistic.”

However, she adds: “There aren’t even local apprenticeships available in logistics and warehousing from our college partners. The type of technical roles we would love to offer are fairly specific, so we are still looking for colleges or universities to partner up with.”

A supportive local educational institute can be an important part of an apprenticeship scheme. Norfield of Simoco says: “We work in partnership with Derby College, which is based near our corporate headquarters. Typically, our apprentices have completed a Level 3 diploma or similar, and undertake the apprenticeship as part of a foundation degree. But there’s a lot of flexibility there – the important thing is to take on young people who are enthusiastic about an area of engineering and want to learn how a business works on the ground.

“When apprentices are successful and show real promise and commitment, we’ll also sponsor them to continue their studies – for example, we might sponsor the second year of that foundation degree, or support them through getting a bachelor’s.”

But more could be done, he suggests. “There is a lot of scope for more official lines of communication and collaboration between businesses and colleges. It would be great to have more official opportunities to visit students while they’re still at school, to explain what a career in radio engineering can look like, and to really sell the idea and variety of apprenticeships from an early stage. Similarly, it would be great to work more closely with colleges to help shape the content that apprentices are working on to secure their qualifications.”

“It would greatly benefit those on placement to have more visits from external trainers, to further broaden their horizon and support their personal development,” adds Griffiths.

Awareness is clearly an issue. Syndico’s Barnett feels that “anecdotally, the colleges believe that very young people (apprentices aged 16-24) do not aspire to be warehouse workers and don’t even know they could be technical support workers and therefore do not sign up for such apprenticeships”. Perhaps, she suggests, there should be more education about the possibility of great careers in logistics and technology support and other less-favoured jobs.

Norfield adds: “There’s [also] the age-old challenge of encouraging more girls and women to study engineering and take on careers in this field.”

If would-be engineers won’t come to you, FCS’s Pateman suggests, think about what the wider apprenticeship market can deliver: “Finding a young person with an engineering bent might be a hard call. But there is no shortage of young people who want general business and administration skills. And no shortage of training providers who can help you.”

“Growing your own engineers may be a long-term project,” says Pateman. “But if you recruit for attitude and encourage engagement, everything else is really just a training issue.” Assuming you find someone who shows promise, set objectives – in conjunction with the training provider – that expose them to radio-specific parts of the business.

A good way to begin is to look at existing staff. “Ask whether this person might welcome spending more time on a site or in front of customers,” Pateman says. “Then ask how much of their job could be done by an apprentice with more generic skills.”

Not just government and colleges but the two-way industry itself should be more proactive, says Norfield. “Engineers at Simoco Wireless Solutions help emergency services save lives, they put together systems in mines and on oil rigs, work on some of the biggest smart grids on the planet. These are genuinely exciting, inspiring projects and we don’t always make enough noise about that.”

Norfield certainly needs no convincing. He says: “For me, an apprenticeship was the best way of being exposed to a wide range of business functions, technologies and individual people as quickly as possible. It’s such a fast way of learning, and of really getting your teeth into how a business and an industry operates day to day. Being able to combine practical, hands-on training with vocational qualifications is a fully well-rounded way of getting into engineering, in my view.”

And it may even take you to the very top. As Norfield says: “An apprenticeship provided my initial entry into the radio industry and I’ve worked my way up to the position of CEO – so I’d say I owe my apprenticeship everything!”

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