Highways England are an example of an organisation that has fully embraced the concept of apprenticeships. The company responsible for operating and improving the country's motorways and roads is committed to recruiting nearly 100 apprentices each year for the next three years as it increases its capability and capacity to deliver £15bn worth of infrastructure engineering and construction projects.
In this article, we present a pair of interviews from either end of the Highways England employment and training programme. In the first interview we get the perspective of the person in charge of the recruiting and learning schemes the organisation runs, and in particular ask about how they grow new talent and encourage greater diversity and more women into engineering. In the second we talk to Amelia, a higher-level project management apprentice, about her job and the training she receives.
Ted Miller: Head of learning and resourcing at Highways England
Tell us a little bit about your role as 'Head of Learning & Resourcing'
My role is to ensure we recruit the best talent and to further develop capability within the organisation so that we have the right mix of skills and expertise to deliver the £15 billion government investment in England’s motorways and major A-roads.
This is the largest investment in these roads for a generation and my role supports our ability to provide millions of drivers up and down the country with safe, reliable and well maintained roads.
What roles are there for apprentices in your organisation?
As an organisation that is heavily involved in delivering key infrastructure improvements across the country, we have a challenging programme of work that includes project management, IT, civil engineering, finance, HR, business administration and customer service. We are expanding our apprenticeships this year across more business areas and increasing our higher and degree opportunities. These programmes are part of a wider ‘early talent’ recruitment plan that is bringing diverse talent into our industry over the next 5 years.
Are you looking for STEM-focused candidates or are you open to all talents?
We are definitely open to all talents. Some of our programmes require STEM skills but we have such a breadth of roles and departments that there are opportunities for people regardless of background, experience and skill set.
To maximise the talent pool available to Highways England, we are starting to develop relationships with colleges and schools much earlier on.
We want young people to be aware of the range of opportunities we have to offer. It’s something people don’t really think about – the road network, who owns it and operates it. So we’re trying tell our wider story to school and college leavers, to let them know what they could experience if they came to work with us – regardless of their chosen discipline.
I see Highways England’s role as wider than just attracting early talent for itself. We want to promote the sector and encourage people to come into the wider transport, infrastructure and construction sector, because our supply chain is so important to us in the delivery of that investment.
Other than academic qualifications, what do you look for in an apprentice?
It’s not so much about the academic qualifications; for us one of the most important things to see is that the candidate’s behavioural skillset is aligned to our values as an organisation, and that they take their responsibility for; safety, ownership, teamwork, integrity and passion seriously.
We want people, who are passionate about their subject, have the desire to learn, innovate and develop and to provide a fantastic service to our customers.
The calibre of applicants is extremely high so it’s important the candidate can demonstrate integrity, be open and honest and can build trust and respect with people, as well as having the integrity to challenge when something isn’t right.
Teamwork is so vital; it’s not only working with your immediate team, but also with other parts of the organisation, and thinking about overall success of the business while still being accountable for things that need to be done.
Do you offer mentoring? Or is that done outside of your organisation?
Every apprentice is allocated a mentor to work with who has specific experience in their role. This is in addition to a line manager who will provide that extra level of support. By working in this way, apprentices get critical on the job learning that they require.
Will the Apprenticeship Levy affect your organisation directly?
Yes, we will make a significant levy contribution each year. We need talent and growth within this sector, not just in this investment period but for years to come. If we don’t invest in early talent now, we won’t have the skilled people we need doing great things for the country in the future.
In general, do you think the Levy will work? Will it help the government reach its target of 3 million apprentices by 2020?
Yes, I think the levy will work because it will focus employers on early talent. Selecting the right apprenticeship with the right organisation is going to be key for people. I think what is important to people making those choices is joining a great company, doing interesting and valuable work, getting a great learning experience, working alongside experts and having steady progression through a career path that helps them to achieve their goals.
What's the best part about your job?
The variety, the challenge and knowing that I have contributed to something significant
Apprenticeship Case Study: Amelia Kirwan, 18, Project Manager Apprentice
Amelia joined the team in November 2016 and is based in The Cube, Birmingham. She sees her two-year apprenticeship as giving her a route to a future career, with on-the-job training, project management experience and a pension:
“I am very impressed with Highways England, they want you to do well within your role and look after their employees. I’d say being only 18 and having a pension plan already set up and running is pretty good going.” said Amelia.
We asked her a bit about herself and her apprenticeship with Highways England, including any top tips she has for someone considering an apprenticeship:
1. What makes you so passionate about working in this sector?
I love the structure and organised format of the role. Working within a small team allowed me to get to know everybody on a 1-2-1 basis which created a friendly, working environment.
2. When did you begin to consider pursuing a career in project management?
I saw the role advertised on the gov.uk website and looked at the listed criteria. I felt like I met some of these expectations and the role seemed interesting and well-suited to the subjects I had taken at A-Level.
3. Who inspired you to go down the career path you have chosen?
I sourced the apprenticeship in my own time. My dad is a site manager within the construction industry, which has some similarities as the projects I am working on within Highways England.
4. What has been the most rewarding project you’ve worked on so far at Highways England?
I am currently working on my own project, which aims to reduce the amount of incidents resulting in debris or loads from vehicles ending up on the network. This is rewarding as I am learning ‘on the job’ creating all the relevant documents necessary, liaising with stakeholders and chairing meetings to gain approval to progress further.
5. What is the one thing you would like people to know about your job?
It’s not boring – everyday there are new tasks and challenges. Due to the nature of the projects I am working on, I have worked with the police a lot since starting at Highways England. I have attended training days with them too which has been interesting and exciting.
6. What is the most annoying perception that people have of your job, and if you could, how would you change that perception?
I would say a lot of people view the role as a bog standard ‘office job’, constantly working behind a computer. I have travelled a huge amount since being here, attending police training, DVSA check sites, other offices and meetings allowing me to get out and about and meet a huge array of people.
7. What does a career at Highways England hold for the future/ what do you see as the upcoming challenges?
Even though no job is guaranteed, at the end of my two-year apprenticeship Highways England is very focused on pushing people up within the business and encouraging everyone to continuously work on their professional development. A range of courses are provided free of charge providing excellent educational support to allow you to progress into whatever role you wish.
8. What do your friends and family think about your job?
My family are over the moon I have got a Higher Level Apprenticeship within such a huge company, working in such a lovely location. The staff benefits are huge and they are pleased I am looked after when in and out of the office, whether this is my travel expenses or training courses. They feel the APMP Diploma in Project Management will set me in good stead for life, as the accreditation is recognised worldwide.
9. Top tip for potential candidates looking for a similar role to yours?
Check the gov.uk every couple of days. After being successful, I would say organisation is key. When you begin a project a lot of things will appear on your agenda. Prioritising these tasks and completing them on time and to a good quality is down to effective time management and staying organised.
10. What do you do in your spare time?
I like to create personalised frames for all occasions but I have recently been very busy.
11. What is your academic background?
I completed 3 A-levels in English Language, Fine Art and Philosophy & Ethics at Shire Oak Academy – gaining 3 Bs. While studying I was working in a restaurant part time. Upon completion of my A-level studies I began working full time before embarking on this apprenticeship at the start of November.