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The real skills challenge

Author : Helen Jeffery

07 May 2015

Raising the profile of FM and tackling broader misconceptions about apprenticeships is the real skills challenge facing the sector

Helen Jeffery

As we gear up for the General Election amid a far-reaching skills shortage, there’s little doubt apprenticeships are at the top of the agenda for politicians and businesses alike. The hype around this year’s National Apprentice Week in March – by far the highest profile to date – reflected the increased fervour around the issue of training and skills.

Support for the event was widespread from key political figures, and a string of major UK businesses announced initiatives and collectively amounted to a promise of 23,000 new apprenticeships created across the UK.

At Interserve we wholeheartedly believe in apprenticeships and they have been a key part of our business for many years. They are an invaluable way for employees – new and existing, young and old – to learn while they earn and gain a formal qualification.

They also allow businesses to bring in new, talented employees and develop their skills to suit the style, environment and culture of the organisation. Apprenticeships are also vital to ensuring that other pathways outside of further education are made available to people – especially with university fees higher than ever before.

The facilities management industry, in particular, has a key role to play in driving UK apprenticeships. Our sector employs a significant proportion of the UK workforce; with five companies, including Interserve, ranking in the country’s top 20 private sector employers by headcount.

On the whole, our industry has fully embraced its responsibility to ensure apprenticeships form a major route into work in the sector. Indeed last year Interserve made a company-wide pledge to bring 500 new apprentices into our business by 2020, and we’re making strong progress towards this ambitious target.

Ensuring enough opportunities are created, however, is just one part of the equation. The real challenge is whether we can get the best and brightest candidates to choose an apprenticeship in facilities management over a role in another sector; especially when there are so many industries vying for the same, sought-after pool of talent.

FM is still a relatively new industry and many people do not even know the sector exists. Those that do are unlikely to be aware of the varied and rewarding career paths that it offers, or the vital role that it plays in the smooth-running of the world’s largest organisations. As FMs, it’s our job to tell this story in a compelling way and drive interest in the opportunities we’re creating.

There’s more to be done to communicate the benefits of apprenticeships in our industry in a way that resonates with the audiences we are talking to – especially when it comes to the younger generation. We need to identify genuine ambassadors who live, breathe and thrive in this industry and can talk about their work in a way that speaks to young people. What’s going to ‘sell’ FM to an 18-year-old school leaver more effectively: a middle-aged CEO expounding the benefits of FM as a strategic business function; or a young FM professional talking about running Google’s headquarters, or managing security at a major shopping destination? 

Even more importantly, we need to demonstrate the hugely challenging and rewarding nature of the work we do. FM is about more than ‘keeping the wheels turning’ – it is the driving force behind the smooth-running of an organisation, and as the face of the brands they work for, FM professionals play a key role in safeguarding and improving their client’s reputation.

More broadly, there is a wider challenge that faces not just our industry but businesses in general, and that is the need to promote apprenticeships to parents of younger candidates. A recent report by the cross-party Commission on Apprenticeships found that while 90% of the public are in favour of apprenticeships, only a small percentage of parents would actually encourage their children to apply for one rather than going into further education. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by businesses and politicians if apprenticeships are going to have the desired effect of tackling the UK skills shortage.

Of course, recruiting individuals into apprenticeships is only the start. We must offer a solid support network throughout their career if apprentices are going to develop the high standard of skills that will match our clients’ expectations for high performance and added value. But the challenge remains that we need to get the right people in the right numbers through the door in the first place – and we will only achieve that if talented and dedicated people know and understand the benefits that a career in facilities management can provide.

* HELEN JEFFERY is national skills manager at Interserve


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