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‘Recruiting people who have proved themselves, are liked and show commitment is very low risk’
Thursday, 2 September 2021, Katie Coyne
Around a month ago, acting head of environmental services and port health, Helen Buckingham, made the decision to introduce four apprenticeships but said the quality of applicants was so good, they upped it to five.
Buckingham, who was appointed to the interim role in February, credits a “fresh pair of eyes” and the article and toolkit as a “wake-up call” to the opportunity of apprenticeships, which have only relatively recently become available.
The speed at which the decision was made to meet the September intake also revealed a clever route for councils starting apprenticeships, as East Suffolk recruited trusted candidates from within its teams.
Buckingham was also surprised to find that money was not the barrier she thought it would be as the UK government’s Apprentice Levy scheme covers training costs. As East Suffolk Council champions apprenticeships, running 60 already, HR was able to set up the EH scheme quickly.
Buckingham said: “We have a need for a lot of people over at the port and inland, and we've struggled to recruit like everyone else. We will always struggle. There are simply not enough qualified people being pumped out of the machine.”
She added: “We need to grow our own. We can't expect the rest of the profession to do all the growing for us and we just pluck when we're ready. We need to take some responsibility here.”
Recruiting apprentices internally, she said, was a “great opportunity” for existing staff, offering career progression, especially to those in support roles. As Buckingham argues, it takes more than just EHPs to run the service and East Suffolk has always recruited a lot of talented people in these support roles.
But she added: “Sometimes people in supporting roles don't always have access to the best growth opportunities in terms of career. They might start as a technical officer or an admin support person, and that's it – there's no pathway for them. Allowing them to join this bus to EHO is a great opportunity.”
Working with known quantities, Buckingham argues, has probably also helped get the idea off the ground and get the relevant teams behind the initiative. In discussions around how to solve the EH recruitment crisis, apprenticeships have previously been seen as a ‘nice idea’ but very labour intensive on already stretched departments.
Buckingham said: “Taking from within – people you know who have already proved themselves, who are liked by their colleagues, who show commitment – there's very little risk there.
“I think that's why the teams have got together and said, 'yes, you know, we are prepared to do this'. I think if I said to them ‘we are recruiting from the outside world straight into an apprenticeship’, there would be more hesitance.”
Apprentices have been recruited from within port health, PRS, food safety and environmental protection, with the latter having two apprenticeships.
Another hurdle East Suffolk had to overcome in setting up the scheme was its long distance from universities and colleges that run the courses, which are often day release. Travelling from the east coast for a day to do essential practical work was not feasible.
Fortunately, the council discovered that Weston College, in Somerset, offers block courses where practical work can be undertaken in weekly rather than daily sessions.
Buckingham is hopeful that neighbouring councils will see the success of East Suffolk’s apprenticeship scheme and introduce their own.
Recognising that East Suffolk is a very large district council, she suggests smaller councils could consider collaborating to create joint apprenticeship roles, which would provide candidates with the opportunities to gain all the experience necessary to complete the training.
EHN and EHN Extra will be following up progress, so watch this space.