Every apprentice needs a workplace mentor - someone there every day who understands and supports their learning and development needs, and the concerns that go along with settling into a new role.
We spoke to Nick Nurock, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) Application Developer at Transport for London (TfL) and Firebrand Training’s 2018 Apprentice Mentor of the Year, who is a mentor for apprentices on tech-related courses. Keep reading for his top tips on how workplace mentors can help apprentices succeed for themselves and the company.
Don’t assume it’ll be easy because you’re already a manager
It’s important not to underestimate the time required to help even the most self-sufficient apprentices prepare for their qualification. ‘Don't let your manager tell you it's something you can do on the side. You need to argue for a recognised amount of your time to be spent on it to do it justice,’ Nick advises.
In addition to their other ‘hats’, Nick says workplace mentors should be apprenticeship evangelists, presenting apprenticeships as a positive force to colleagues and stakeholders. ‘Any success story you have in your organisation, share it across the wider organisation. The general awareness of apprenticeships isn't high enough and the role of the mentor isn’t properly understood. Each time someone goes through that learning curve with their first cohort, they should be radiating that information to as many people as possible so others can learn without making the same mistakes.’
Make time to help apprentices settle in
If you’re the first person apprentices really know and trust within their organisation, they’re more likely to come to you than anyone else through the first months of their new role. It’s a good idea to make yourself as accessible as possible during this period.
‘When my first cohort started, I was seeing them for a couple of hours a day - but with the latest cohort I really wanted to step that up. So, with the 13 apprentices in this cohort, I'm actually sitting with them in the first four weeks, at least. I'm spending a lot more time doing the technical coaching with them. Coming into the workplace for the first time can be really daunting and they can be quite easily overwhelmed by all the new stuff they've got to learn. I start by offering them lots of support before stepping back as they grow in confidence and ability.’
Alongside this immersive training experience, Nick has organised fortnightly one-to-ones for his apprentices, which he plans to scale back to monthly sessions. ‘With the cohort coming to the end of their apprenticeship, I’m only seeing them for maybe an hour every couple of weeks.’
Underestimate them at your peril
Employers can be nervous about letting apprentices take on responsibilities or key pieces of work. But apprentices who aren’t given this opportunity are less likely to pass their assessment or make good employees in the future. The knowledge, skills and behaviours required for most apprenticeships are best demonstrated in a real-world context, even in the earliest stages of learning.
‘My first cohort delivered a presentation to a local MP and he was blown away by the work they were doing,’ says Nick. ‘This was quite early on in their apprenticeship - month four or five. They had more confidence than many experienced employees. That was a bit of a light bulb moment, seeing what they could achieve. All of them stood out in that presentation because it really conveyed how much responsibility they'd been given so quickly, and they weren't fazed by it. If I had been trying to do a presentation to an MP at the age of 20, I'd have been a quivering wreck!’
How well you’re doing is all about how well they’re doing
Nick finds his best performance management tool is a quick check of his apprentices’ faces each day. ‘I'm lucky that the apprentices I'm mentoring are good-humoured, but for me a big measure of my success is how happy the apprentices are. You can tell that in the morning. Have they come into work dreading what they're about to be doing, or are they fired up before you start talking to them?’
The reward for Nick’s efforts is, he believes, much quicker than in similar mentoring roles for more experienced professionals. ‘If somebody comes to you saying "I've got doubts about what I should be doing, I don't understand this bit of software", and you're able to talk to them, reassure them, influence them, persuade them by reminding them of their end goal and get them back on track, then that's a fantastic feeling. And that can all happen in a matter of weeks, whereas seeing that change in attitude in an experienced person would take months!’