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Highway to learning: National Apprenticeship Week case study


"Apprenticeships are vital for our business and an attractive recruitment option for employers," says Kristine Pollock, group human resources director at highway and airport services provider, Ringway


Businesses across the country, such as Ringway, are increasingly realising the enormous benefits that apprenticeship schemes create, not only in terms of a highly skilled workforce but also by boosting productivity and staff retention. Apprenticeships are an optimal way of training, developing and equipping people for the future, helping businesses secure a workforce with skills and qualities that are not available on the external job market.

As a company operating throughout the UK, Ringway is a streamlined organisation geared to providing a comprehensive range of integrated highway services – from routine and winter maintenance to manufacturing and installation of signs, production and laying of road-marking materials and specialised surfacings. The cyclical nature of road construction contracting and maintenance services means that we require a highly skilled and mobile workforce.

We have a successful history of hiring and developing apprentices. Our apprenticeship ethos stems from the key skills the company requires now and in the future. Our experience has shown that recruiting apprentices is an effective recruitment source to keep our contracts running efficiently and safely. We work closely with both training charity Construction Skills and Askham Bryan College in York, having developed a highways maintenance apprenticeship programme that has proved extremely successful in generating committed and enthusiastic students.

We formally introduced the Ringway apprenticeship scheme in 2007, running alongside our graduate programme. The purpose of the scheme is to provide the company with an additional tool to harness fresh talent and provide a systematic stream of trained, qualified individuals who, over time, will move around within the business to provide the specialist skills needed to maintain our complex operations. To date, we have had a total of 27 individuals employed on our apprenticeship scheme across the country, in locations such as Wiltshire, Kent, Worcester, Harrogate and Rotherham. This year, sixteen of these individuals successfully completed their NVQ and diploma and are now working within the company as fully trained operatives. The remainder, on a rolling programme, are set to achieve similar qualifications over the next two academic years.

Ringway’s apprenticeship scheme combines college learning with on-site experience to ensure the right balance of technical skills and practical experience. Company and trainees alike benefit from the mix of training and real construction site experience. CITB-Construction Skills works with Ringway to recruit the students, while the courses are delivered by Askham Bryan College.

Mike Curtis of CITB-Construction Skills agrees: "Drawing on 40 years of experience in the construction industry and as the largest provider of apprentices for the sector, we see many companies benefiting from such apprenticeship schemes. We have been working with Ringway for three years and its commitment to this particular highways maintenance discipline has meant that we have been able to place 27 apprentices with it. As I see it, we are helping to develop the next generation of skilled construction workers. More than 81% of CITB-Construction Skills apprentices complete their full framework and that’s 10% higher than the national average. We aim to provide the best practical support to make everything as simple as possible for apprentices and employers. We help with costs, advice and assistance (assigning a dedicated adviser to each company), helping to make the experience a successful one both for apprentice and employer."

The Ringway course at Askham Bryan College is designed to deliver the full apprenticeship framework. There is a two-year apprenticeship available to applicants who have successfully passed the interviews with the HR department and senior operational individuals, in addition to literacy and numeracy tests. We conduct a robust induction process to introduce the new apprentices to our business. During their first week, the new apprentices spend time at their depots, where they are provided with personal protective equipment, get introduced to key personnel within the depot and attend induction presentations covering the relevant employment polices and procedures. In addition to this, they attend a training week, run by our in-house plant instructor/assessor and are trained in the basic core skills required for their roles, covering such issues as abrasive wheels, banksman, manual handling, first aid and safety.

Barrie T Leak, course manager/lecturer in highway maintenance engineering at Askham Bryan College, has worked closely with Ringway to develop the course and has seen some real progress with course delegates: "When these guys come to York, very often it is their first experience of living away from home, so we are frequently teaching them how to look after themselves too, giving them the opportunity to develop basic life skills in a supportive environment. The benefit of running this scheme at Askham Bryan is that, as an agricultural college, we have over 1,600 acres of space in which to learn, so are able to deliver a course that gives students the opportunity to learn and experience real-life highways settings which they will be facing in the field – but under safe and secure conditions. This ensures that people will, before they finish the course, get hands-on experience and are ready to face the big, wide world. A case in point is the large polytunnel which students recently constructed, allowing them to build and maintain sections of road and footways under cover and in a controlled environment. They are able to use and practise with industry standard plant and machinery such as excavators, compaction equipment, breakers etc, honing skills that will be required in the field."

Over the two-year programme, students will experience key areas such as utility protection and avoidance, highway excavations and reinstatement and traffic management. The first year of the course focuses on teamwork, health and safety, employment rights and knowledge and understanding of plant and equipment. The second year covers manual tasks, where students are required to interpret information related to utility services using state-of-the-art detection equipment, implement traffic management on an active roadway, as well as excavation, tarmac laying and paving. In common with the best apprenticeships, the Ringway programme co-ordinates college-based learning with periods where the apprentices spend time at various Ringway operations. In this way, the theory that is learnt on campus is immediately put into practice and reinforced onsite.

Course students are required to put together a portfolio of their work, with supporting evidence from the depots, to demonstrate that they have applied the theory in practical applications.

On completion of the course, students receive an NVQ diploma in highway maintenance (construction) and a diploma in highway maintenance - excavation operations, both at level 2, along with appropriate functional skills qualifications.

All courses have been specifically tailored to suit Ringway’s business. The apprenticeships are also part-funded by Constructions Skills, to cover costs such as:

•     Course fees

•     College travel

•     Accommodation (onsite at the college)

•     Contribution towards meal allowance

Ringway works closely with the college to monitor and review the performance and progress of the apprentices by way of probationary reviews and robust quarterly reviews from the college, CITB-Construction Skills and local managers. Where a problem has been identified, apprentices will be supported to allow the issue to be resolved, allowing everyone to move forward.

Case Study

Ringway apprentice: Jamie Gibbs, age 20

Current Ringway location: Faversham, Kent

Jamie is a great example of how the Ringway apprenticeship scheme works well, not just for the company, but also for its apprentices. When Jamie came to the scheme back in 2008, he arrived with a positive attitude but without conventional academic qualifications. With his determined approach and commitment to the schedule, he successfully completed the entire programme to realise his ambition of gaining both the diploma and the NVQ.

It was a huge achievement and one that was extremely satisfying: "I was in a dead-end job when one of my friends, who was already on the course, recommended it to me," explains Jamie. "I am really glad that he did, as I believe applying for the Ringway position was one of the best decisions I have ever made. My time studying was split between theory work at college and practical work at the depot. While at the depot I would be set different tasks on sites, which ranged from maintenance jobs, such as hole patching or kerb replacement, to some larger jobs, for example, footway reconstruction, where I would work around machines and cat scans. It was an experience I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else!"

Jamie completed his course and qualified in June 2010 and since then has been posted to the Ringway depots in Sandwich and Faversham. Arthur Godden, site agent, based at Ringway’s Faversham, Kent operation, has been responsible for supervising Jamie. He says: "Jamie has come on in leaps and bounds since he started out. His skills have vastly improved and you can see his confidence building every day he works with us at the depot. We are very proud of what he has achieved and proud that he is now a fully-fledged Ringway employee and member of the team."

But the last word must go to Jamie himself: "College helped me understand the skills involved with construction and improved my reading tremendously. The whole course was very worthwhile and I would recommend it to anyone. It has made me realise my ambitions. My aim now is to further my career and become a foreman and have my own gang."