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How to make your architecture apprenticeship exceptional

Words:
Daniel Goodricke and Luke Murray

Strategies for ensuring successful apprenticeship training – six apprentices and what made it work for them

The success of any apprenticeship rests in the tripartite relationship between apprentice, employer and training provider. It is important for the apprentice to maintain lines of communication. Credit: Bell Phillips, Photo: Kilian O’Sullivan
The success of any apprenticeship rests in the tripartite relationship between apprentice, employer and training provider. It is important for the apprentice to maintain lines of communication. Credit: Bell Phillips, Photo: Kilian O’Sullivan

Since architecture apprenticeships were introduced in 2018, over 800 early-career architects have embarked on this training path. With multiple cohorts across the country having now completed the process, what have been their experiences?

There were conflicting opinions over how successful apprenticeships were, some had positive views: when apprenticeships are good they can be very, very good. Others found them difficult. This was the key finding of original research drawn from the experiences of apprentices, as well employers and academics delivering apprenticeships.

So, what can ensure an exceptional apprenticeship? 

You, the apprentice

To make your apprenticeship journey a success, and borrowing Malcolm Knowles’ assumptions of adult learners, you will need to be sufficiently independent and self-directed to make your own learning choices, as is expected of an emerging professional. You will likely be orientated to problem-based learning – the acquisition of new knowledge and skills that can be readily applied to your professional practical experience. And, your accrued experiences, whether educational, professional or personal, will provide an increasing resource for learning. Your training provider (or school of architecture) will help you make this important step change.

Industry, your employer

Unlike a traditional, full-time degree, your apprenticeship will inevitably be shaped by your employer’s contribution (on-the-job training). This presents an opportunity for exceptional, tailored training; distinguishing your apprenticeship journey from that of others.

In this article, we share three common characteristics of an exceptional apprenticeship: reciprocity of learning, skills currency and career trajectory. The guidance is derived from original research into the experiences of apprentices and those that support them and features several celebrated apprenticeships intended to help you to make the most of your journey in a similar way.

Read more about how practices can set up apprenticeships in this RIBA Journal article. 

Reciprocity

The relationship between apprentice, employer and training provider is the cornerstone of an exceptional apprenticeship. The tripartite agreement offers diverse opportunities for reciprocity, establishes clear lines of communication and structures the monitoring and tracking of your journey. Responsive employers have benefited from this reciprocity, not only in supporting some of the highest-achieving individuals within their academic cohorts but also by identifying relevant research projects that their apprentice explores during ‘off-the-job' activities in university. This knowledge can benefit employers through CPD, report-writing, and/or publication to skill-up staff. 

Katie Shannon, an apprentice at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) through Oxford Brookes University developed notable research at the university that has directly influenced FCBS’s approach to inclusive design and helped disseminate new knowledge across the practice. Her project, Towards an Anti-ableist Architecture, provides an intersectional anti-ableist design to prioritise the accessibility of buildings and the built environment. Shannon’s research had a positive impact on FCBS’s knowledge of inclusive design, offering new reflection points for designers (that may be disseminated nationally), while providing her with an extensive breadth of anti-ableist design principles; positioning herself as a key individual within an inclusive design professional network.

As an apprentice, you have a great wealth of resources you can benefit from. Apprentices are encouraged to explore the broad range of support available to them on their journey. This may include:

  • Joint resources Use employer and training provider facilities and resources (model-making, project archives, in-house expertise, journal access and specialist equipment).
  • Knowledge exchange Resist compartmentalisation of learning and instead seek out opportunities for exchange.
  • Identify performance needs Tripartite reviews help identify gaps in knowledge and agree any extra support required.

If you find yourself in a position where communication is waning from either side, you need to raise this early. Take ownership of your learning to re-establish clear communication and consistency. 

  • Many apprentices have credited the reciprocity between workplace and academic learning and simultaneous access to educational and technical resources for their apprenticeship success. Credit: Hawkins\Brown, Photo: Adrian Lambert
    Many apprentices have credited the reciprocity between workplace and academic learning and simultaneous access to educational and technical resources for their apprenticeship success. Credit: Hawkins\Brown, Photo: Adrian Lambert
  • The Stephenson Building at Newcastle University marries a modernised original frontage with a highly contemporary extension, utilising a timber structure and CLT timber floor plates and highly efficient building materials. Credit: NORR UK / PB Imagining / Newcastle University
    The Stephenson Building at Newcastle University marries a modernised original frontage with a highly contemporary extension, utilising a timber structure and CLT timber floor plates and highly efficient building materials. Credit: NORR UK / PB Imagining / Newcastle University
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Skills currency

Architecture apprenticeships are employer-led. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) argues that employers best understand how to fill the skills gaps in the economy. Many practices have already capitalised on this opportunity by using apprenticeships to address skills shortages, develop specialist services and bring in new expertise, especially around climate (eg net zero design and carbon emission calculations) and digital literacy (eg data analytics and generative AI).

Sudhir Thumbarathy, a former apprentice at NORR UK through Northumbria University, was encouraged to constructively align his academic design thesis project and dissertation with his professional practical experience to develop a well-rounded, working knowledge in climate science. He was able to apply this to practice by streamlining and incorporating sustainability goals within practice processes, including its application to a net zero impact in-use project.

As an exemplar in employee development, NORR UK sponsored Sudhir to undertake One Click LCA and Certified Passive House Designer specialist training in recognition of his passion for carbon reduction and its importance to the wider industry. These skills enhanced NORR’s service, providing clients with comprehensive sustainable information to make informed decisions, benefiting their projects and the environment. They also resulted in Thumbarathy being appointed to NORR’s transatlantic International Sustainability Research Group.

Whilst Thumbarathy’s experience is exemplary, you should be alert to training and upskilling opportunities – whether in your academic or workplace settings – to advance your knowledge and skills in a given area. Examples may include:

  • Guest lectures/masterclasses Learn from the expertise of others.
  • CPD initiatives Share knowledge and skills among your peer support network.
  • Accreditation Use your structured learning allocation, especially during non-term time, to acquire recognised accreditations.

It’s possible you could find yourself in a workplace where opportunities to develop a certain competence are limited. In this case, you may want to seek a secondment to another studio team, as is sometimes possible within larger practices. Some apprentices have even secured secondments to sister or affiliated organisations to develop difficult-to-acquire knowledge, skills and behaviours.

Career trajectory

While it has been argued – perhaps most compellingly by Randy Deutsch in his book, Think Like an Architect – that architects are multidisciplinary generalists, albeit master ones, there are ever-increasing opportunities to specialise. The recently introduced RIBA Education and Professional Development Framework promotes numerous specialisms that you can train for, so it is recommended you plan your time and align your professional interests with employment.

The protracted nature of architectural education deters many people from pursuing further training. While the apprenticeship route offers no literal time saving, concurrent (and ideally reciprocal) on and off-the-job training provides a vehicle through which to develop expertise more efficiently.

Early evidence suggests that apprentices who adopted this mentality have already realised accelerated career paths and look likely to be among the most sought-after architects of their generation. Some are even emerging as likely future leaders.

Examples include: Eleanor Lee, a final-year apprentice at GSSArchitecture through the University of Cambridge, who recently became an in-house SKA assessor; Laura McClorey, who was awarded a prestigious PhD studentship off the back of her design thesis project, Belfast Stories, undertaken at Northumbria University, informed by her continued work as a practising architect at FaulknerBrowns Architects; and Anastasija Kostileva and Nelton Barbosa, architects at Bell Phillips and Pollard Thomas Edwards respectively, who are now teaching Year 1 design studio at Ravensbourne University London, supporting the next generation of future professionals.

Here are some suggestions for how you might use your apprenticeship to support your career aspirations:

  • Be strategic but not rigid Set mid and longer-term professional goals to help develop your identity and positionality. Resist being too rigid and seize unexpected opportunities.
  • Remuneration Reviewing your career and salary progression at annual appraisals is essential to keeping you motivated.
  • Lifelong learning The apprenticeship is not the end of your learning, regardless of the terminology used. Adopt a lifelong learning mentality and ask others about their own career journeys.

 

  • Sectional façade model from Laura McClorey’s design thesis project, Belfast Stories. Credit: Laura McCLorey / Northumbria University
    Sectional façade model from Laura McClorey’s design thesis project, Belfast Stories. Credit: Laura McCLorey / Northumbria University
  • Resilient Horizons: Safeguarding Suffolk’s Historic Coastal Villages from Climate Change was named Postgraduate Winner, AJ Student Prize 2023. Credit: Mehul Ashok Jethwa / De Montfort University
    Resilient Horizons: Safeguarding Suffolk’s Historic Coastal Villages from Climate Change was named Postgraduate Winner, AJ Student Prize 2023. Credit: Mehul Ashok Jethwa / De Montfort University
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You can learn more about Shannon, Thumbarathy, Lee, McClorey, Kostileva and Barbosa in the Architecture Apprenticeship Handbook.

A few more lessons learnt 

In addition to the characteristics above, the following additional early lessons are offered by current and recently graduated apprentices feedbacking back on their experiences:

  • Communication is key Maintain clear lines of communication with your employer and training provider to help manage workloads, coordinate deadlines, and consolidate or advance learning. Communicate any changes in personal or family circumstances early. This will help you get any necessary pastoral and academic support.
  • Use your Training Plan to your benefit Your Training Plan and linked Apprenticeship Standard are intended to produce a structured exposure to different aspects of an architect’s role as you build your career. Properly resourced graduate trainee contracts with clear obligations on apprentice, employer and training provider should prevent the haphazard and unstructured approach to professional practical experience sadly encountered by many of your predecessors.
  • Define what progress looks like Your 12-weekly progress meetings with your workplace mentor and apprentice coach will help you determine this within your own contexts. Resist unduly comparing your experiences with that of others. 
  • Be alert to social enrichment and networking opportunities Whether in academic or industry settings, look for opportunities to meet with other apprentices, attend CPDs and make time for team or practice-wide social activities.
  • Celebrate your success It is important to celebrate the achievement of milestones. Also look for opportunities to share or disseminate your work whether through awards, conferences or publication.

There is reason to believe that the apprenticeship route is here to stay. Architecture apprenticeships, and various emulating models, are integral to renewed ARB and RIBA frameworks for educating future architects. At a recent roundtable discussion with shadow creative industries minister Chris Bryant on future policy on the creative industries, RIBA members – both educators and practitioners – called for a more diverse pipeline of talent and for apprenticeships to be scaled up.

Architecture Apprenticeship Handbook by Daniel Goodricke and Luke Murray is now available. The handbook demystifies the Level 7 Architecture Apprenticeship, providing structured guidance and advice for career progress to apprentices, as well as those that support them on their journey

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