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Apprenticeships: how to set up practice schemes

Words:
Eleanor Young

Apprenticeships have many advantages for both practices and students, but setting up a scheme can be daunting. Experience reveals some tips and the pitfalls to look out for, finds Eleanor Young

Ivan Ignatov and Nelton Barbosa of PTE get to work model making.
Ivan Ignatov and Nelton Barbosa of PTE get to work model making. Credit: Pollard Thomas Edwards Tim Metcalfe

With rising living costs and changes to the rules on paying back student loans it is hardly surprising that the number of inquiries on apprenticeships to architecture schools and the RIBA has risen. They launched in 2018 and last year around 250 apprentices started their journey, most on a combined Level 7 course that brings together Master’s at Part 2 and professional practice at Part 3. Apprenticeships are still ‘under the radar’, says Ben Taylor of LOM architecture and design, which is a host practice.

Here we draw on the experience of practices and universities to understand the pitfalls and tips that will help practices work successfully with apprentices. And not just practices, anywhere with a qualified architect – from contractors and project managers – could work with apprentices on these courses. It is about the relationships that can enable you to support your team through the expensive process of training – and reap the benefits. Employers interviewed cite inquiring minds, focused research, skills and retention. The National Apprenticeship Service says that 92% of companies report a more motivated and satisfied workforce. The government has mapped out the steps to setting up apprenticeships, while the RIBA clearly signposts some key areas to look into.

Enthusiasm

First of all you need an enthusiast, says Helen Taylor of Scott Brownrigg. She pioneered the process in the practice as one of the government-named trailblazers who worked through the standard, but relied day to day on great mentors. ‘You must have someone really passionate to support the apprentice, to mentor them and to liaise with the university,’ she says. We'll come back to mentors, but first let’s look at the two levels of architecture apprenticeships.

Learning and working in Pollard Thomas Edwards’ London office: Marion MacCormick with Ivan Ignatov and Nelton Barbosa.
Learning and working in Pollard Thomas Edwards’ London office: Marion MacCormick with Ivan Ignatov and Nelton Barbosa. Credit: Pollard Thomas Edwards Tim Metcalfe

Level 7

The route that most clearly taps into the path that architects are familiar with is to offer Level 7 apprenticeships. If you are a small practice you can keep your brilliant Part 1 student in the practice and put them through their Parts 2 and 3 with a day release and additional training costs of around £1000 a year per student over four years, depending on the university. Larger practices (any companies with a pay bill of over £3 million) already have to pay into the apprenticeship levy at 0.5% of their pay bill, but by employing apprentices they can claw that back in the form of an annual allowance for university fees.

Level 6

More of a leap is to offer a Level 6 apprenticeship and commit to four years of bringing up someone new to architecture. Tellingly, it is offered by only two universities as yet – London South Bank and Portsmouth. In all, just over 100 apprentices have started on this route since it came into being. In the university sector there are doubts about the long-term take-up of this, due to inexperience and existing degree course drop out rates. ‘Mums and dads ask us about it,’ says one apprenticeship course leader. ‘But practices don’t.’ It may be easier to take on switchers via this route, if they have been architectural technologists for example, or worked in associated crafts and industries.

Other study options

Daniel Goodricke, assistant professor at the Northumbria University and author of the forthcoming Architecture Apprenticeship Handbook, points to another apprenticeship option, PlanBEE that with further study can lead to a degree. Ryder Architecture set this up with Gateshead College and it now extends to the London School of Architecture, which gives experience across many construction disciplines. This demands less of a long-term commitment from employers.

At Parts 1 and 2 there is also a very different option available in RIBA Studio, in which an office mentor and a personal tutor, selected by the student, support them to explore their chosen themes. This is run with Oxford Brookes University, and can be a very cost effective way to gain a certificate (Part 1) or diploma (Part 2) in architecture. It costs £3,308 a year plus a directly contracted tutor (typically £40-50 an hour).

Credit: Pollard Thomas Edwards

Three-way relationship

Whichever apprenticeship level your practice supports it is a three-way relationship. The choice of university is down to the practice which is helpful, as decisions must be made over whether to do block release study (eg University of Cambridge) one day a week, two days a week (eg Nottingham Trent University) or a hybrid remote/in person course (eg Northumbria University). At least one university also charges top-up fees. Many practices make this decision part of the conversation with potential apprentices, and just as many draw on existing close ties with universities through RIBA mentoring or teaching. Universities also offer sessions for potential employers to find out more. One experienced practitioner suggests that it is easier to work with just one university.

The apprentice is the third side of the triangle. They may already be in the team, or be recruited through the practice’s existing networks – by advertising (for example via RIBA Jobs), or in a more targeted way through the university or the Find an Apprenticeship Service. They are members of staff with a line manager and of course are students as well. This split of priorities is more pronounced over a longer period than it is with Part 3, and inevitably creates more timetable clashes between academic and project deadlines.

You need someone really passionate to support the apprentice, mentor them and liaise with the university

‘Sensate Structure’ is a Year 1 module by Nottingham Trent University apprentices, constructed from waste CDs and 3D printed connectors made from modified corn starch. The apprentices experimented with coding to control a strip of LED lights which is threaded through the structure.  The module combines the circular economy, the relationship between structure and services and the use of ChatGPT to develop the Arduino coding that controls the LEDs.
‘Sensate Structure’ is a Year 1 module by Nottingham Trent University apprentices, constructed from waste CDs and 3D printed connectors made from modified corn starch. The apprentices experimented with coding to control a strip of LED lights which is threaded through the structure.  The module combines the circular economy, the relationship between structure and services and the use of ChatGPT to develop the Arduino coding that controls the LEDs. Credit: Nottingham Trent University

Mentors

In most cases the person holding all this together is the practice mentor. They and the wider practice may be motivated by a desire to build a more diverse profession or by an interest in working one to one with an apprentice and sharing their experience. Many are concerned for the skills coming through and see a need to build a pipeline for the profession. Whatever their drive, mentors need time allocated to their roles.

Mentors at Scott Brownrigg are a mix of the very experienced and newly qualified. At Pollard Thomas Edwards, Marion MacCormick set up apprenticeships in the practice and worked to align all the learning outcomes from the ARB and RIBA into the apprenticeship format and ensure there were practice examples for them in an employers’ guide put together by the trailblazer practices. It was a good grounding for her mentoring of apprentices, some of whom are now graduating. She identifies the most important things as regularity and consistency of support, a structured check-in, and catching things early.

MacCormick meets her mentees once a fortnight or once a month. She checks how they are getting on and that they are recording their learning hours, offers comment on projects and – critically – helps on time management and prioritising. That might also mean talking to the apprentices’ line managers to plan around the crunch points. Chances to learn – going to site, having good design meetings – need to be grabbed with both hands. ‘It is an investment,’ MacCormick says, ‘but you get it back, especially if you can keep your Part 1 student.’

If you want to influence the shape of the profession, apprenticeships are the place to do it

If you want to influence the shape of the profession apprenticeships are the place to do it, says Helen Taylor. But for her it is also about seeing future architects accelerate their learning, to reach a high quality more quickly with the value of live project experience. The RIBA is working on an apprenticeship award to recognise how students are working in the context of practice.

Anthony Dalby, an architect for many years and now course leader for Level 7 at Nottingham Trent University, sees the value of the students reflecting, experimenting and exploring within practice. In the second year, apprentices’ research projects often tackle a live issue such as building a guidebook for the business on carbon in design, or researching project opportunities. Dalby also sees significantly faster decision making and execution by apprentices than in students who are not already in practice. ‘In practice you need to do a concept in an afternoon, not three weeks,’ he says, illustrating the difference in pace. ‘Apprentices flick between expansive thought and activity… You get a different animal: if you can bring them together you have a very powerful combination.’

Learn more about employing an architect apprentice at architecture.com. Architecture Apprenticeship Handbook by Daniel Goodricke and Luke Murray will be available shortly from the RIBA bookshop

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