Barnardos, the children’s charity, has appealed for 20,000 apprenticeships to be made available to 16-18 year olds in care. The charity urged that those selecting apprentices should consider would-be apprentices on their potential rather than their qualifications.
This got me thinking. Surely every job applicant should be assessed on their potential – on their ability to excel in the job? Surely it’s just wrong to select on qualifications?
But the issue is possibly how this is done, and for Barnardos, its root concern should perhaps be the subjective methods of selection that are used during the process. Greater success with care leavers might be had with objective methods.
All managers seek objectivity. So, just how should a manager go about selecting an apprentice to achieve that throughout the process?
Many years ago I was at a British Telecom establishment, sitting what I’d now recognise as a 16PF personality assessment and a battery of tough questions on numerical, verbal and abstract reasoning. It was 1972 and managers were only just beginning to apply this psychological science to staff selection.
I was at BT for an interview as an apprentice.
The following week I was in Chelmsford for a repeat performance at Marconi and afterwards in Cheshire with Hawker Siddeley. At seventeen I had no real qualifications, just some O’ Level passes from a couple of years before. But importantly I was mad keen on electronics and more specifically on wireless communications. When an interviewer handed me a very weird valve from a high power transmitter, I could have a good guess at what it was and could give a half-reasonable description of how it worked even though I’d not come across such a thing in a classroom. Valves were glass bulbs with electrodes that amplified signals. Transistors have substantially replaced them today.
In the end I chose Marconi. They didn’t pay the most but they guaranteed work on wireless and that did it for me.
So what was the BT, Marconi and HS selection process all about? And what did my experience suggest for apprentice selection?
The essence of an apprenticeship is an extended period of learning-on-the-job combined with classroom teaching. It’s an investment in time and money for both employer and apprentice.
Today, there’s much talk about young people and how they are not committed to work and how they flit from company to company. Managers can’t cope with that. Managers want stability. For an apprenticeship to work, both parties must stay the course. So it helps if both parties enter the arrangement with the right attitude.
For a successful ‘marriage’ of apprentice and company, one must complement the other. The company and the managers with whom the apprentice will work must meet the apprentice’s needs. The apprentice must have their needs for relationships, feedback on progress and self-esteem satisfied. The apprentice must derive meaning and purpose from the work – they are not just a cheap pair of hands doing any old work. On the other side, the manager wants commitment and the right personality and aptitude. In short, the person and the environment in which the apprentice will work and learn must fit together well.
Now, going back to my applications in the 70’s, one of the key things that made me attractive to the three biggest electronics firms in the UK was my interest in their activities. I could easily see future meaning and purpose. If I’d ever seen the outcome of that 16PF personality assessment, it would likely have shown that my personality was well suited to being an engineer. My choice of first career and the firms I was applying to were in line with my personality. Their recruiters could see that from my interests and measure that in tests. There was what, as a psychologist, I’d now call ‘P-E Fit’.
So whilst Barnardo’s appeal is laudable, the charity also needs to remember that there’s more to a successful apprenticeship than opportunity. Hiring managers need to sense P-E fit before they’ll decide in the applicant’s favour.
P-E fit demands a good description of the job and a definition of the sort of person that will have their needs met. If needs are met, commitment and motivation to excel will be maximised. Once the hiring manager knows the sort of person they are looking for, selection can be done scientifically. There’s no place for qualifications now – only potential.
One of the difficulties is that this form of selection is foreign for most managers. Few have the training to develop adequate job descriptions and person-specifications, even for apprentices. Few understand P-E fit. So instead of 16PF and aptitude, managers tend to go on gut feel and bias – and on qualifications because qualifications are the only tangible evidence available upon which objective choice can be made. And research shows that qualifications are the best attribute on which to make a choice, if there’s no other information available.
And that’s where the problems lie.
Whilst qualifications are a good criterion on which to base a decision, such decision-making omits personality and how that person will fit in that firm doing that work. Excellence is predicted from personality, aptitude and complementary fit with the working environment.
Onus on candidates
There’s also onus on the apprenticeship candidates to know themselves and to apply to companies for apprenticeships to do work that meets their needs. They need to be sure that their needs for meaningful work and purpose will be met.
That’s a big ask for a teenager and Barnardo’s should perhaps look more at how career guidance is given to those in care.
Forcing selection by demanding that some apprenticeships in specific sectors are reserved for a particular societal group is wrong and will result in proverbial square pegs in round holes. By all means lobby to make more apprenticeships available but then use the concept of P-E fit to ensure that demand and supply are balanced naturally rather than by quota.
Selecting an apprentice
So how does a manager select an apprentice? The answer is by defining carefully the job and the person who will excel in that job, and then making a selection using psychometric selection tools, work sample tests and a structured interview. The valve question posed to me was one such test. This form of selection is based on the science of personality, aptitude and fit. And whilst there is likely still some uncertainty about the exact job an apprentice will finally move into, there’s enough definition of needs to use science, rather than guesswork.
Buy it’s not all over when the apprentice arrives at work. Whilst managers can never ultimately control when an apprentice decides to move on, they must remember that they do have substantial influence over the commitment and motivation of all their apprentices.
Commitment is driven by manager-apprentice exchange and motivation is driven substantially by the nature of the work. Managers must use this control to make sure their relationship with the apprentice sustains and excellence prevails.