Let's Talk Everything Apprenticeships

In this special edition of Texthelp Talks, we celebrate NI Apprenticeships Week by sitting down for a chat with the people involved in Texthelp's very own apprenticeship scheme. Join us to find out more about the benefits of apprenticeships and how you can get involved as a business or as an apprentice.

Find out more

We hope you enjoyed this episode of Texthelp Talks. If you'd like to learn more about apprenticeships and how you can get involved, you can visit the Belfast Met website.

And if you're interested in applying for our next intake of apprentices, keep an eye on this page for updates. Thanks for listening!


Shauna Hanna (00:15):
Hello, and welcome to this latest episode of the Texthelp Talks podcast. In this episode, we're celebrating Northern Ireland Apprenticeship Week. Led by the Department for the Economy, the annual week-long celebration aims to raise the profile of apprenticeships across Northern Ireland, by bringing together partners, including local councils, employers, universities, further education colleges and private training providers. Through a series of mostly virtual events the week will demonstrate the benefits of becoming an apprentice and showcase how apprenticeships can work to strengthen and grow businesses, communities, and the wider economy.

Shauna (00:48):
You can find out more details about all the virtual events happening across Northern Ireland by visiting the NI direct website. In this episode, we've brought together a lineup of speakers who have been involved in our very own apprenticeship scheme here at Texthelp, which is run in partnership with Belfast Metropolitan College. Since launching our apprenticeship scheme in August, 2020, Texthelp has taken on three apprentices and we're looking forward to taking on more in the coming months and years.

Shauna (01:17):
You're hearing from me, Shauna Hanna, Content Strategist at Texthelp. And today I'm joined by Andrew McDermott, our HR officer, Neil Whiteside, Trainer Assessor at Belfast Met, and our three apprentices, Shay, Laura and Stephen. Thanks to you all for joining us today for this very special episode. And thanks to everyone on the other side for listening.

Shauna (01:38):
So to kick us off, we should start by digging into what exactly is an apprenticeship. And to answer that question I think we should start by talking to Neil Whiteside. Neil's background is in financial services and education. And he now works as a Trainer Assessor at Belfast Met, where he helps to deliver apprenticeship qualifications from levels two to four.

Shauna (2:02):
Neil, so most people will probably understand apprenticeships as a form of work experience, but as we have learned over the past few months, being involved in the apprenticeship scheme, that's really just scratching the surface. Could you tell us a bit more about the apprenticeship courses that you run at Belfast Met and what all is involved?

Neil Whiteside (02:20):
Yes, of course Shauna. So an apprenticeship really involves, what it boils down to is learning on the job. So on the job learning. So you're learning, yes, you could look at obviously theories in terms of technical skills, but what you're doing is you're actually learning on the job to have an end result of the skills that you're developing. So it's not like a traditional educational course where you're just learning theory. In an apprenticeship you actually get the opportunity to put that theory into practice, which is one of the best things about doing the course that at the end of it, you have actual positive skills that you are using every day, instead of actually learning about skills, you're actually getting the opportunity to use those skills.

Neil (03:08):
One of the main benefits that doing an apprenticeship is, it's a paid and employed pathway, which means that whenever you come out at the end of an apprenticeship, you've been paid a wage throughout the whole apprenticeship. So it should, some people are maybe thinking of a career change, who are maybe used to working and thinking, yes, I want a career change, but I can't afford to give up my job to go into full-time education. So an apprenticeship is the perfect solution for them.

Neil (03:38):
In terms of the apprenticeship as well, as well as it being fully funded, you get your qualification at the end and you don't you don't come out with any student debt or anything. So the main sort of purposes of the apprenticeship is you gain your professional qualification at the end, and that can be from level three, right up to level six or seven, depending on the apprenticeship course that you're on, and you're not saddled with thousands of pounds of debt at the end of it.

Shauna (04:06):
Of course, I think, not everybody wants or can go to university as well.

Neil (04:14):
Exactly, exactly. There's many people say that university is the be all and end all of educational routes. Vocational qualifications are just as valuable as going to university. And as you quite rightly say, university is not for everybody. It used to be before you didn't really have the option in terms of the professional services that we have now in all the apprenticeships, in those sorts of areas. But you just had the opportunity to go to university, which as you said, it doesn't suit everybody, that form of education.

Neil (04:44):
So as I said, with the apprenticeship, you still get the professional qualification at the end of it. But what you've got is depending on what level, if you do your level two and your level three, and your level four, you've really got three, four years of practical experience behind you, as well as the professional qualification at the end of it.

Neil (05:03):
So the mistake that some people make about apprenticeships or they look at the traditional apprenticeships of construction or motor mechanics and things like that and what they don't know is there's a whole plethora of other options out there for apprenticeships. So in terms of the ones that I am involved with personally, you've got the likes of sales, financial services and business administration. Even for the likes of hospitality, we've apprenticeships run there.

Neil (05:30):
And then it works on your higher level apprenticeships. The higher level apprenticeships are being added to every year. It's just, that's an option for us to target where do we need to develop a pipeline of talent? And that can be done through a higher level apprenticeship. So you've got things like cybersecurity and network infrastructure, accountancy. So people think if I want to be an accountant, I need to go to university. No, you don't. You can start your accountancy training by doing an apprenticeship as well.

Shauna (06:03):
And then build your way up?

Neil (06:06):
So what we really want to do, it actually starts even, Shauna, before apprenticeships, we've got non-paid options, the likes of our College Connect and Skills for Industry. It's like level one qualifications. So somebody who's maybe not quite ready for the workplace, there's more of a classroom based course where they'll learn employability skills, and they'll start on a level one course, whatever that be, business and hospitality, to learn the sort of technical skills they require. Then the guys in our careers team and the guys in College Connect and Skills for Industry, they'll look at maybe job placements and things, getting them just sort of a taster.

Neil (06:43):
So we can have people who can start at a level one qualification and through a vocational route, can work your way right up to higher level apprenticeship. So going to degree level from starting at level one and going on an employee pathway, you still can get right up to your level five, six, seven qualifications, through a vocational pathway, you don't need to go to university. And that's not to say that university isn't for some people, but it's not the only option out there.

Neil (07:11):
So as I said, what we want to do within the Met is have that pathway that someone can come in on level one. And that can even be someone come in with very little qualifications, and we can look at the essential skills, we can get them their English, their maths, their ICP. And as I say, because traditional education doesn't work for everybody. That doesn't mean that somebody is not capable of progressing to a higher level.

Neil (07:35):
So we do have people who come in with very little formal qualifications, start by doing their essential skills and work their way up through apprenticeships. And there is finally the option to move on to, if they wanted to, higher level apprenticeship there on the end. And so it's a fantastic opportunity for a different path through traditional education.

Shauna (07:57):
And for anybody who might be wondering, what's the division of time between training and work and assessment? You know there might be people listening that are thinking, "Oh my gosh, how do I work all day, do the training, do any assessments?" What's the balance of time required?

Neil (08:17):
What we do in terms of, your working is your training, because you're learning on the job. So it's not a case of, we'll say, "Oh, for four hours this week, you're going to be trained." You're learning on the job. So what we try to do is, at the initial stage of an apprentice has been taken on, we'll sit down with the employer and we'll chat about what the person's job role going to be?

Neil (08:40):
Our apprenticeships are generally quite flexible in terms of the units that people cover. So what we'll do at that stage is, we'll try and match the units to what that person will be doing on a daily basis. So their development through work is their development on their apprenticeship as well. In terms of the higher level apprenticeships, they'll have day release from college, that they will attend.

Neil (09:03):
In terms of myself, delivery of my apprenticeship, I actually go to visit the apprentices in the workplace. And this will be done a minimum of two hours every four weeks. Sometimes more just depending on the individual needs. And assessments are built in, in those two hours that I'll be out. So in terms of your actual training, you're learning on the job. So it's not a case of we'll set aside three or three hours. You're learning for 35 hours a week, all the time you're in work, you're learning. And a lot of your evidence that you gather for an apprenticeship, it occurs naturally because the units have been selected based on what you do as part of your job role. So you don't have to maybe go and get an awful lot of extra evidence because you're doing it and you're becoming competent.

Neil (09:48):
Now, we don't expect you to be, after your first two weeks in to be competent in absolutely everything, it's a journey. So at the end, what we want to do is map your competency throughout the journey against the units that have been picked, and those units have been picked to work in with your job role. So everything should just naturally occur. And you've always got, as an assessor, I'm always available for if anyone does need a bit of extra help, I'm always available at the end of the phone, at the end of an email, so if anybody is struggling.

Neil (10:19):
And we are flexible as well in terms of, if we set an assignment that we do know people have pressures of work, and it's a case of it's not as maybe structured as university, that if maybe somebody does need a little, maybe a couple of days extra on their assignment, that is things that we do look at for them that as they are people under pressure.

Neil (10:40):
So if you've got a big deadline that comes up and work, we know primarily, yes, you're an apprentice doing coursework for yourself, but you are an employee of a company, which is very important. And that is your primary role as an employee of a company, and you're doing this apprenticeship with the qualification. So there is an element of flexibility from my own delivery, in a way that if somebody is struggling and they need an extra couple of days to do an assignment, based on an extra heavy workload, there's no issues at all with them.

Shauna (11:09):
That will definitely alleviate any questions or concerns that anyone who's listening might have. Thank you, Neil, for that. You touched on the fact that there's many different routes to enter your apprenticeships and that people take part for very different reasons. This is, of course something that we find in our own apprentices. So I think I'll turn now to hear their perspectives as well. Laura, I'll start with you. You joined Texthelp as an apprentice in our marketing department and you're working towards a qualification in business administration. Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to be involved in the apprenticeship scheme and what your experience has been over the last couple of months?

Laura Nixon (11:52):
Yeah. So when I first heard about this opportunity, I had just completed a master's degree and I was looking for a graduate role in marketing. But I very quickly found myself facing a problem that I think a lot of graduates face, which is that, in order to secure the job that you want, you need to have industry experience. But then in order to get industry experience, you need to be working within that industry. So it was really just by luck that I stumbled across this role being advertised on LinkedIn. And it just felt like it was almost tailor-made for what I was looking for in my circumstances.

Laura (12:30):
So I had never really considered an apprenticeship before. I think the reason for that was really that I had a very limited understanding of what industries apprenticeships served and who they're open to as well.

Shauna (12:46):
You probably thought it was something that you did for, post 16-

Laura (12:52):
Yeah, exactly.

Shauna (12:53):
Post school.

Laura (12:55):
Yeah. The message I had gotten from careers advisers at school, was that apprenticeships were an alternative to university and they were for school leavers and people interested in practical trades. And so what I've actually learned is that apprenticeships, they are all of those things, but they're also so much more than that. And that wasn't the full picture. So I think it's really great that we're raising awareness of the variety and diversity that there is in apprenticeships. And what they have to offer people of all ages, all backgrounds, all career paths. I think they're a great entry point into an industry. And definitely the added support that you get from having your mentor, both within the company and a training college, that's a really key thing. I just wish I had known about this years ago.

Shauna (13:49):
You mentioned that there are a lot of misconceptions about who apprenticeships are for. Stephen I'll turn to you for a second. I understand that you chose to take on one of our PHP developer apprenticeship roles as part of a career change, in fact. Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you found out about the apprenticeship scheme at Texthelp?

Stephen Hewitt (14:14):
Yeah, certainly. I was originally employed in production, mostly working for fast moving consumer goods. Like I worked for Michelin and I worked for Coca-Cola. Unfortunately, I found myself in the position of some health issues, which forced me to look at a career change, at a time in my life that it was, it was quite daunting because I was older obviously than most of the students. And I found myself that I didn't have the qualifications that are needed to look at different industries.

Stephen (14:56):
So I ended up actually going to South Eastern Regional College where I did an HND in computing systems that led to me completing my bachelor's at Ulster University at Jordanstown there. A friend of mine that was in my degree course actually had just started a job at Texthelp. And I was actually just chatting with him, and I was telling him I was looking at jobs. And it was kind of frustrating because not only did I not have industry experience because the degree that I had didn't have a placement year, but I found that some of the content of the degree was quite outdated as well. So he recommended the apprenticeship here at Texthelp, which just suited me right down to the ground. Because I looked at it, and I was going to get the valuable experience that I needed, not only to complete the job, but to boost my confidence in looking for a job and starting a job.

Shauna (16:08):
And what would you say to anybody who is maybe a little bit older, as you said, than your traditional student age, that is considering or yearning for a career change?

Stephen (16:22):
I was actually quite surprised because, like I said, it was intimidating and I thought I was going to be this old man sitting in a class full of kids. But actually in our class, it's a very, very diverse group of people. I think our average age is somewhere in the mid 30s. And there's quite a lot of people at the minute that are looking for that career change mid career.

Shauna (16:47):
So take the leap of faith.

Stephen (16:49):
Yep. Yep. You just have to try it out.

Shauna (16:52):
Yep absolutely. It's great to hear the diversity of the backgrounds that not only our own apprentices, but as you say, Stephen, that others in your class and those different backgrounds that they've all come from. I think one of the things that you guys all have in common is the benefits that you're actually taking from the experience.

Shauna (17:15):
So we'll turn to Shay now for a second. Shay, as you're one of our apprentice JavaScript developers. Could you give us a little bit of detail around what you hope to gain from your apprenticeship here?

Shay Carroll (17:32):
Yeah. It's just getting industry skills so if I do go looking for other jobs, I can show them what I've done and what I can do. And then that will help me later in life as well.

Shauna (17:44):
Tell us a bit more about the work that you're doing, what department you're in, what does the role involve?

Shay (17:53):
Yeah. At the minute, I'm just making small code changes until my coding abilities get better. So we're working on the PDF JS portion at the minute, and I'm just changing everything, so for people in different countries the words get, we'll say, translated for them, and they'll be able to read our website and our different products.

Shauna (18:14):
And what training have you received, and what skills are you developing even further?

Shay (18:22):
Yeah. I received training in JavaScript and CSS. And then later on, I'll be getting more training in React Native, just so then I'll be able to do more stuff in the coming months.

Shauna (18:33):
And for anybody who's listening, Shay, what do you personally think the benefits of Earn While You Learn apprenticeship is?

Shay (18:43)
Not having any debt, earning.

Shauna (18:49):
Absolutely. Yeah.

Shay (18:50):
Yeah. After coming out of university, I had to owe loan money, so it's good not having to owe anyone and you're actually earning a wage.

Shauna (18:57):
Great stuff. So I'll turn now, just to get an employer or a business perspective on the whole apprenticeship scheme. I'll come to Andrew McDermott. Andrew is our HR officer at Texthelp and he has been absolutely instrumental in getting Texthelp involved in an apprenticeship scheme, getting our own scheme up and running alongside Belfast Met. Andrew, hearing all these great benefits that apprenticeships bring to your business, I'm sure that's what attracted you to seeking out and establishing the partnership with Belfast Met for Texthelp. Can you talk us through about how you ended up getting involved and the support that you've received in that process?

Andrew McDermott (19:54):
Yeah, absolutely. I suppose, going back to the start, I joined Texthelp about a year and a half ago, but this was something that in the first few months of joining that I'd kind of broached with my manager, getting her full backing. She told me to go look into it and come up with a business plan. Something that I could present to the senior management team, because as a company we'd never been involved in the apprenticeship scheme before.

Andrew (20:20):
So I went away and did a bit of research about what was involved, the benefits to the company, the benefits to the apprentices themselves and things around the costs, the timeframes and what courses they had to offer, and whether they aligned with our departments and our kind of departmental need. And the other senior managers, they bought into it completely. They were more than happy to support us in joining the scheme. And the first couple of things we did was we went along to some Belfast Met employers events-

Shauna (20:55):
It seems like a lifetime ago now, doesn't it?

Andrew (21:00):
It was just before the pandemic took hold, and despite everything that happened then after that, it really gathered momentum from there. And as you say, we ended up with three apprentices joining the company pre Christmas after what was a pretty smooth recruitment campaign. Yeah, I guess the main reasons we wanted to take part were that the courses were aligned with the vacancies that we had. And the apprentices would be learning as they worked and they would gain experience. And the college had a really good mentor scheme as well, which provides ongoing support. So each apprentice would be assigned a mentor from the college, but also we assigned them a mentor as well in the company.

Andrew (21:50):
We really liked that we could use our own recruitment methods, which we knew would mean that we would end up with the perfect candidates who were suited to the roles, but also the company culture.

Shauna (22:04):
And what advice would you give to any other employers who are considering starting or getting involved in an apprenticeship? And I'll maybe ask Neil to chip in there as well as Andrew?

Andrew (22:18):
Yeah. I mean, I would say honestly, just go for it because it's really straight forward. We've only seen benefits from being involved so far. I suppose, in the context of the current climate everyone's going through a really tough time at the minute, businesses and young people. But especially young people at the minute who are probably disproportionately affected in terms of, they're the least likely to be affected health wise, but they're most likely to be affected by the downturn in the job market.

Andrew (22:56):
So it's really about giving young people and people who are looking for a change of career direction, a chance, just opening a door for them. And the scheme really gives people the opportunity to do that. As you said, without going to university and without taking on all about that debt that that involves.

Neil (23:22):
So, just even to go off the back of COVID, there is now an awful lot of advancement being made into apprenticeship schemes. So there's a lot of funding available for employers to avail of, in terms of to help the training and development of their staff. So the opportunities are out there. So why not take them, they're there to be used and they're there to help people develop in their on the job learning.

Neil (23:53):
In terms of as Andrew had mentioned there as well, we're very flexible in terms of delivery of the apprenticeships and what's delivered, and we try and match things up to mirror what your vacancies are. We'll not have people doing courses just for the sake of doing a qualification that doesn't actually align to what they're doing as part of their everyday job. Because that just takes the whole ethos of an apprenticeship away.

What we're doing as a college is we're there really just to backup and to help with their development, which is going to be mainly and primarily done through their on the job work. So, as I said, what we'll look at is the flexibility of making sure what we are delivering matches up with the vacancies. And as I said, with the whole economic situation at the minute and the fundings available there for the uptake of apprentices, and businesses would be silly not to avail of these opportunities because they're there to be used and they're there to help develop.

Neil (24:56):
And the main advantage of an apprenticeship is again, as Andrew already had mentioned, is the culture of your company, which is important. So you're around people and you're training them within the culture of your company, as opposed to bringing somebody in externally who may not be as good a match. So if you ask me, there's opportunities there for everyone.

Shauna (25:16):
Yeah. One thing that I would add to that, as well as that we've managed to do that completely virtually. The guys on the episode today have not really had too many opportunities to interact with their other colleagues. Yet, I would say, that's coming, hopefully not too far away, but that is also a very important part of our culture. And we can't wait to get back into the office to get creative juices flowing even further. It's okay to do that virtually, but it's even better when it's face to face.

Shauna (25:55):
The other thing that I would add as well to what you said Neil, was, certainly from a hiring manager's point of view, whenever we were in the process of hiring Laura into the marketing department, it was really nice to have almost like a menu of courses that we could match, or modules that we could match to what her role was going to be. So that makes her training even more closely aligned to the role that we need her to fulfill for us. So it's really good that there is that flexibility from an employer's point of view, and it's a very straightforward process as well.

Andrew (26:36):
So I would say communication is really key the whole way through, and it's something the college were really good at, and they made the application process really straight forward. They were always available for any impromptu calls the whole way through, whether it was Phil Allen on the IT side, and Emma Morrison on the business admin side and Neil as well. So yeah, I think if anyone has any doubts or are considering getting involved in the apprenticeship scheme, I'd just say, speak to the college, speak to employers who've been involved before. Speak to the apprentices and we've-

Shauna (27:18):
Yeah. Don't just think that it's for tradespeople or vocational jobs, it's all types of industries really.

Andrew (27:25):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, go along to the MC events, the careers events, and you'll see the whole range of employers that are involved in apprenticeship scheme, those are really useful as well.

Shauna (27:36):
Well, I'm sure after hearing about all the benefits that can come from apprenticeships, there will be many businesses that are out there who are really eager to get involved now and into the future. So I'd just like to say thanks to all of our guests for joining us today. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in.

Shauna (27:57):
If you're interested in taking part in an apprenticeship scheme, either as a business or an apprentice, you can visit the Belfast Met website for more information. Do also keep a look out on our own Texthelp website and social media accounts because over the coming months we'll be opening up applications for our next intake of apprenticeships. In the meantime you can follow all of the NI Apprenticeship Week activity on social media with the #NIAW2021.

Shauna (28:26):
That's it for this episode. Thank you so much for joining us. We look forward to the next time. Don't forget to subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch the next episode. Thanks again. Goodbye and take care.